Is it possible that rumours of the death of the high street have been somewhat exaggerated? The news media sees a steady stream of stories about how our traditional shopping habits have changed, how we now shop online first, how we use comparison websites and social media to make our consumer choices; and alongside these stories there are those about the high rate of shop closures, the sight of boarded-up shopfronts across the UK’s once thriving high streets, the predatory effect of supermarkets, and the narrowing of high street retail to a miserable diet of betting, nail polishing and kebab consumption.
The initiative headed by Mary Portas to regenerate our high streets is widely seen as a failure, and the statistics, we are told, suggest that a larger and larger proportion of our purchases will be made online; together these assumptions amount to an elegy for a way of living and shopping that is consigned to a past where flat-capped Victorian vendors serviced the needs of a pedestrian, and basically primitive (that is, offline), population.
However, among the doom-mongers and elegists, one can also spot the odd report suggesting that not only is it possible for the traditional high street to survive, but also that some high streets are doing just that, and that some are even thriving. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle: some high streets are suffering badly, and look doomed; others are managing to attract consumers, and maintaining the footfall necessary to generate business and the ambiance vital to high street shopping.
The stats about online retail are not as alarming as blithely negative news stories suggest. Currently, consumers in the UK make around 14% of their purchases online, and this is likely to rise to 34% by 2020. That statistic could be read as a death-knell for physical shopping, but there is another possibility too: e-commerce may reach a saturation point, a natural ceiling beyond which it is unlikely to progress.
Think of it this way. The number of products and services you can purchase online may be limited by: the type of product, and whether it translates into a physical object; the proportion of the working population dedicated to delivering those physical objects; the relationship of convenience – some products may be easier to fetch yourself than wait for someone to deliver them.
So not only is there a clear need for physical retail, but that need represents the majority of consumer purchases. Not all of those purchases will be made on the traditional high street; shopping centres, off-street supermarkets, and a marginal number of home-based retail outlets will account for a large proportion – in the case of food shopping, for instance, supermarkets account for a whopping 97% of all purchases.
But that still leaves a lot of people wanting and needing to buy a lot of things. The high street is the obvious location for these purchases; it’s usually near where you live, so you are familiar with what shops and services are available. And it offers, as part of your consumer experience, something the internet cannot provide; other people, in the flesh, doing the same thing as you. This, as Jane Jacobs demonstrated in her seminal work on urban life, is the bedrock of the high street experience. It is the reason for the survival of high streets, and the reason why some of them thrive in an age we often characterise by its virtual attributes, as if we have all disappeared from physical existence and reappeared as ghosts in a universal machine.
I live in South London, at the confluence of two major roads, the Old Kent Road and New Cross Road. Between them they offer nearly six miles of high street. At times, I have seen a lot of dead businesses and empty premises, and at times I have bemoaned the narrow range of consumer options on offer (in my cynical moments, I have been known to suggest that, if aliens landed their spacecraft on New Cross Road, they would assume that earthlings subsisted on fried chicken and kebabs, and spent their lives betting, having their hair and nails done, and sending money around the world).
But the fact is, people live a proportion of their lives on the street here, and because they do, businesses constantly open up to offer them stuff to buy and do while they are hanging out. These businesses come and go, and the face of these streets changes over time, partly as the transient elements of the population change; but there is always a landscape, a cityscape, of shops and businesses and a cadence of street populations walking past them, standing in their doorways, and buying things from them.
And this is not a phenomenon limited to a particular class; as areas become gentrified, the street population mixes and changes, but it is still there. Parts of the OKR/NCR retail strip contain high-end cafes, artisan bread shops, and specialised retail such as organic foods, quality wines and aspirational products. They live alongside the shops selling cheap alcohol and fast food, the betting shops and nail parlours; they include sections of the street catering to particular ethnic groups – halal butchers, African and eastern European grocers, Turkish cafes; and they include businesses that service the online world in various ways – mobile phone repairs and upgrades, computer sales and repairs.
The physical retail sector is learning to live with the online revolution, and even feed off it. The ‘bricks, clicks and touch’ model leads to businesses that offer an integrated consumer experience; instead of racks full of products, they offer a stimulating environment, knowledgeable staff, free wi-fi, screens among the traditional product racks and features; in short a fuller, more rounded version of traditional shopping that acknowledges the reality of the virtual world without surrendering totally to it. Historically, small-scale retail has been the most versatile form of SME business; it shows no signs of losing this versatility just yet.
The last fifteen years have been a struggle for the high street. The recession of 2008 onwards, the twin juggernauts of virtual shopping and supermarket predation, and the upward spiral of property values, have all conspired to make life difficult for the small street-front retailer. But they have not killed off the business. As long as people remember how to walk and talk, and feel the need for physical interaction with other people, there will be urban life; as long as some of us have cash in our pockets, and eyes to yearn with, we will shop; and as long as there are urban spaces where we can satisfy these basic needs and abilities, there will be high streets. It will take a considerably bigger revolution than the advent of online commerce to change that.