The government is, yet again, setting up a task force to deal with the ‘decline’ in British high streets. The Future High Streets Forum has been set up to combat competition from online shopping, identify trends in retailing and draw up new designs to bring Britons back to the town centre. Is it doomed to failure? In 10 of the 12 Portas towns – those towns awarded funding under the Mary Portas pilot programme – the number of empty shopping units rose, despite receiving grants from the High Street Innovation Fund. In total, 95 businesses have shut shop in Portas pilot towns.
Our Future of Britain research highlighted consumers’ concerns about their local high street. Using a unique research tool to gauge strength of opinion, we found that, from a long list of statements, the one that garnered the highest amount of agreement was “Large retailers have squeezed out smaller retailers” whilst the statement with the lowest amount of agreement was “Large multinational companies are reliable and I trust them”. Seen in the context of wider issues, some 85% of our 2,000 British respondents were concerned about the declines of the high street, compared with just 55% concerned about Britain keeping the Falkland Islands, for example.
But will numerous task forces, working parties and advisers be able to ‘fix’ the high street? After all, online shopping is forecast to grow, and as younger digital natives replace traditional high street shoppers in the demographic pyramid, it’s very difficult to foresee a situation where the high street can be revived. But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a role for it in our lives. It just means that the role is changing.
Consumers value the sense of community that the high street harbours. The British high street is becoming more of a leisure destination rather than a retail one. Experiences are increasingly important and local authenticity is valued highly. This opens up a multitude of opportunities for brands; in fact it’s a real win-win situation. Consumers want their high street to play a meaningful role in their lives and the community at large, whilst brands want to foster trust by playing a meaningful, authentic role in people’s lives. The high street is here to stay – it will just look very different.