Wednesday, 16 April 2014
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Saving the UK high street – some suggestions

Following the collapse of high street chains Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster, there has been much discussion over the past week about what can be done to rescue the UK high street, and even whether or not it deserves to be rescued.

The consensus (which I happen to agree with) seems to be that there is still a place in the retail landscape for the UK high street, but only if retailers become a lot more forward-thinking and embrace new design trends.

Here are some of what I think are the best suggestions.

High street retailers need to become more localised.

The Portas Review said that high streets should become 'community hubs'

The Portas Review said that high streets should become ‘community hubs’

This was one of the key suggestions in Mary Portas’ review of the high street in 2011. She suggested that ‘high streets of the future must be the hub of the community’. This doesn’t just have to mean Portas-facilitated schemes such as subsidised market stalls or community cafes – big retailers can and must get in on the act too. Household’s Julie Oxberry cites the example of Home Depot in the US, which runs in-store community classes affiliated with local schools and organisations – neatly tying a big national brand to its locality.

Stores must use technology – not see it as a threat.

Kinect technology at Nike's Boxpark Fuelstation outlet

Kinect technology at Nike’s Boxpark Fuelstation outlet

It’s become a commonly accepted analysis that HMV in particular was brought down because it was unable to innovate and make the best of new technology. Some commentators suggested that had HMV gone online-only 10 years ago it could have had the brand power to see off Amazon. But the debate doesn’t have to be this reductive. It isn’t a question of being an ‘online’ or an ‘offline’ brand. The most forward-thinking retailers are those that are taking the best elements of digital and interactivity and giving them new purpose on the high street. Projects like Nike’s Boxpark Fuelstation, developed with AKQA, or StartJG’s Adidas Virtual Footwear Wall (winner of a Design Week Award last year) have enormous potential to rethink the way we look at the high street.

Independents must be allowed to flourish

A 'cardboard log cabin' designed by Studio DB for Circus in Brixton Market

A ‘cardboard log cabin’ designed by Studio DB for Circus in Brixton Market

While the demise of high street chains such as HMV is invariably met with a certain sadness, one positive from the current situation is that it could allow bright, forward-thinking independent start-ups to mushroom up in the space left behind by big chains. This is already happening to a certain extent, but we mustn’t underestimate how difficult it is to set up as an independent retailer. As SomeOne’s Simon Manchipp points out, ‘Would anyone recommend a national high street presence to a start-up retailer today?’ And when clusters of independent retailers do establish themselves, they must be allowed to flourish. Brixton Market has, in recent years, become a mecca for bright independent retailers and restaurants, but many of them now fear that rent increases could force them out, to be replaced by national chains. Landlords need to make a profit, of course, but they mustn’t be allowed to dictate the nature of the high street.

Customer attitudes needs to change

Rough Trade in Notting Hill, London

Source: Ewan Munro

Rough Trade in Notting Hill, London

There’s one group that must bear the brunt of responsibility for the decline of the high street and it’s us, the consumer. We’re the ones who browse the shelves of HMV before buying more cheaply online. Who scorn ‘overly expensive’ independents. Who drive to out-of-town malls for convenience. Sure the high street needs to change, to become more welcoming, more enticing, more convenient (and better marketed) – but if we really want the high street to survive then consumer attitudes also need to shift. We must see the opportunities that the high street has for engagement, for education and to be a community hub. Get your records at Rough Trade Sounds of the Universe, not Amazon. Buy your bike at Evans or Cycle Surgery, not from Wiggle. Enjoy the experience of interacting with brands who know how to treat consumers face-to-face and use your spending power to tell retailers that this is what we want.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Great article. Agree there is still a place for retailers with the right offer and passion.
    Sweaty Betty perhaps provides a way forward with its 'genuine' engagement with customers in the form of FREE yoga and running classes!
    Evans should do free classes on puncture fixing...

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