Charity shop. Charity shop. Betting shop. Pound shop. Betting shop. Charity shop. Café. Café. Café. Sound familiar?
This is the reality of the UK high street in 2023. But dig a little deeper and you may be surprised by what you find.
As you wander through your once thriving town center, have you occasionally heard older generations lamenting “how it used to be”? How once upon a time “there were loads of shops”. There was no drug use. No shoplifting. No litter. No graffiti. (Spare a thought for the poor souls who work in retail as they hear it every day of the week.)
My town center’s the worst!
Indeed, to listen to people on the street or read comments online, you’d be forgiven for thinking that each person’s local shopping high street is the worst in the country. As a test, go to Facebook and find your council’s official page. Or even better, if there is one, find a dedicated page promoting your town’s high street.
Select a post at random (preferably one with ‘good news’ about a positive development for said town) and luxuriate in the misery that follows in the comments. Truly, no one hates your town more than the people who live in it.
This is the crux of it—if you’re one of those people who think your town center is the most uninspiring in the country—it’s not. It’s just one of the most depressing. Congratulations!
Every few months a commercial real estate agent or retail thinktank will commission a survey into the worst high streets in the country. It will be picked up by The Sun, et al. and everyone who reads it will nod their heads sagely at the validation for their cutting insight.
And this compounds the worst thing about each town’s criticism; there’s an element of truth in that self-hatred, isn’t there?
And this is no little wilful exaggeration. In the past, the streets were paved with gold, and dog dirt tasted like Belgian chocolate if you were to believe many, but there’s still that kernel of truth. I’m not exactly sharing any startling revelations here. Most town centers—and even some larger city centers—are in a race to the bottom and hurtling at speed toward retail Armageddon.
Here’s the thing, despite the hyperbole and the fact that it speaks to some truth, right now, your town center is not as bad as you think it is. It’s really not. All it needs is a different perspective, but before we put on those rose-tinted glasses, let’s get one thing out of the way: The high street is never going to return to its heyday and its belligerent grasp on retail is futile.
Why? Well, as centers of retail, most towns and many cities simply cannot compete with their out-of-town counterparts and it’s unlikely they ever will again. Supermarkets, shopping malls, and retail parks offer convenience through nearby parking, cover from unpredictable UK weather, varied stores in close proximity to one another, a food court, and a surfeit of desirable brands. All the things that people now expect from a shopping trip.
And let’s not forget, the percentage of people who leave their homes and physically go shopping has, and continues to, decline. Online shopping’s share of the retail sector pie grows bigger by the year; it has doubled in the last 7 years worldwide alone. No, it’s a rolling boulder gathering pace and those who stand in its way get squished.
What is this different direction you speak of? Where should town centers go?
Firstly, there must be an acceptance that retail now runs parallel to other uses. (And I write this as a business owner with a vested interest in the survival of high street bricks and mortar retail.)
Residential, F&B, leisure, and business, all need to find equal space in our new town centers. Each offers different motivations for people to visit a town center and will contribute to sustained footfall that empty retail units do not. It may be jarring, but what’s better for a town center’s survival—a block of apartments, or a derelict department store? Let’s not mince our words, those department stores that have moved or closed for good in a problem town center, are never coming back.
On that point, and as painful as it may be, most high streets need to let go of familiar high street names. When a Primark, a John Lewis or a Marks and Spencer leaves your town center, do not mourn them. They’re the boyfriend or girlfriend who dumped you as soon as a new exciting partner gave them the eye. In this case, one with a bigger house, a massive car park and more people enjoying their facilities each day…
No, those big brand stores do not care for you or your town. And this is no criticism. Why on earth should the various layers of decision-makers at Primark care about a town to which they have no emotional connection? It’s just another notch on their locations map. If they’re going to make more money at (input Generic Out of Town Retail Park name here), then they’ll understandably abandon HMS Town Centre before you can say “free parking”.
The old adage is “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” Well, that’s not actually the entire truth when it comes to chains. There may be thousands of people passing through their doors every day. Genuine profits flooding the till. And you’ll still lose it. Pretty damn brutal for those who depend on it. But hey, there are bigger profits a couple of miles down the road giving them the eye.
So, who does that leave us with? Well, among the bookies, the discount stores, and the charity shops, there will be some friendly faces who you will grow to recognize and who will recognize you in return. (Cheers!) They will provide a level of customer service you rarely receive in chain stores. They’ll give you access to products and brands that are perhaps too niche for mainstream stores. I’m talking of course about independent retailers.
And it’s at this point I’ll switch from “they” to “we” being as I am part of said sector. The vast majority of us (independent retailers) are actually from the places where our businesses reside. We care about our towns. We care about (most) of those who we share it with. We’re the owners you don’t meet when you visit a chain. We’ll stay as long as you want us and in some cases, our children may one day serve your children.
Admittedly, this is going to sound a little needy, but please, please… please appreciate your town’s independents just a little bit more. If you find yourself itching to drop a comment on your town’s Facebook page along the lines of “there’s nothing worth going there for now”, hold your tongue… I mean, keyboard. These are real people with real jobs and very real mortgages or rent to pay.
Every time you rush to denigrate your town with abuse, you may persuade others to stay away and create a self-fulfilling prophecy. And not to put too fine a point on it, when was the last time you actually gave your town center a chance? That “nothing there” is in all probability wide of the mark.
My store in Rotherham town center is on a small street (just a couple of hundred meters from top to bottom.) It is thriving with indies. Clothes shops, award-winning hairdressers, barbers, a number of genuinely stunning cafés, a marketplace for crafters, a couple of cool bars, a traditional pub, a wonderful deli, a video game shop, a model shop, a bridal/promwear shop and even more.
And new indies are still giving it a chance—in a few weeks, we’ll see a new zero-waste shop opened by a wonderful couple who genuinely care about Rotherham. If people give them a chance, then they’ll be on this street for years to come.
But do you know what’s not on our street? Primark. They left it in 2017.