Over the past couple of years the media has been replete with stories about the high street – and it’s been all rather gloomy, says Clare Rayner, who summarises where the discussion stands at the outset of a new year …
Last year we saw Mary Portas throw down the gauntlet to Bill Grimsey – he berated her review during a live Q&A session at the Retail Week Live conference, and she challenged him to do better – and so we’ve seen the publication of yet another review of the high street. Personally, I would not say it’s any better – it has more detail, but it’s still just a document, which, like many that have gone before it, may simply gather dust in a Whitehall filing cabinet.
The real issue is that, so far, this has been all talk – politics and posturing. The Government has done little to comprehensively respond to the 28 solid recommendations in the Portas review that they, notably, commissioned. Grimsey’s review is unlikely to have impact either – unlike Portas’ work, his wasn’t even commissioned!
If they don’t take heed of the review they asked for, I can’t see an unsolicited document aiding the transformation of our high streets. The fact is we’ve seen very little real action and we have heard too few good-news stories. If we left the future of our high streets to the press and the politicians they would be consigned to the history books, and we’d all be expected to call that progress …
Thankfully though, in numerous town and village centres all over the UK, businesses have decided enough is enough, and are fighting back. Yes, the old high street of yesteryear may well be dead/dying, but in its place we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of high street.
This evolving high street is one that is adapting and responding to the ever-changing demands of the modern consumer. Time poor, tech savvy, the evolving high street is developing an offering that provides them with an experience that blurs the lines between the virtual and physical, offers an immersive and engaging experience and, most importantly, encourages social connectedness – again in person or online.
The new consumer doesn’t understand terms like multi-channel or omni-channel, and doesn’t need to – it’s the businesses who serve them who have the duty to understand their current needs and predict their future needs, and it’s those businesses that are shaping the future of the high street.
“Time poor, tech savvy, the evolving high street is developing an offering that provides an experience that blurs the lines between the virtual and physical”
In communities, be they towns or villages, where the businesses are working together, supported by all the relevant local stakeholders – Mary Portas’ vision of a ‘town team’ – the most significant improvements in high street performance are being seen.
Examples of success have included schemes to breathe new life into declining markets, to embrace digital innovation with town centre loyalty schemes and marketing apps, and to turn empty shops to good uses that add both social and commercial value.
The fact is that there are numerous opportunities for our high streets and the businesses within them – they are only limited by their own imaginations. The route to regeneration is relatively straightforward – when businesses and town centres focus entirely on the customer, on the community that they exist to serve, then they can evolve to provide the right offering – a balance of retail, services and leisure.
Town teams, my personal favourite recommendation from the Portas review, are a fantastic way to achieve change within towns and communities. Comprised of various local stakeholders, town teams work in the interest of the community to deliver the changes that will help reconnect local consumers with local businesses and over time will help to restore the footfall, and sales, to the high street.
I’m passionate about the future for retail (in the widest context of all consumer-facing businesses) in our communities and our high streets. I’m sick of hearing all the negative talk and seeing limited action.
As a result, I’ve created a new event, the Future High Street Summit, which takes place over two days from 26-27th March. Some 150 people who share the belief that there can be a positive future for our high streets will come together to hear from the likes of: Brandon Lewis MP, Minister for Local Government and High Streets and chair of Government’s Future High Street Forum; Martin Blackwell, CEO of the Association of Town and City Management; Neil McInroy, CEO of the Centre for Local and Economic Strategies; Chris Wade, CEO of Action for Market Towns, and many more.
I sincerely hope that by bringing together all those who have success stories to share, it will be possible to inspire many other areas to take their lead and to implement some of the simple, effective solutions which have been proven to turn the tide on high street decline and aid in the metamorphosis of the Great British High Street.
Clare Rayner, also known as The Retail Champion, is one of the UK’s most respected retail consultants.