Is the High Street really dead…or just dead boring?
A couple of weeks ago I found myself reading yet another article (this time in the New Statesman) bemoaning the death of the high street. Once again, the finger of blame was pointed at competition from the online superretailers, the challenge from budget firms such as Aldi, Lidl and Primark, economic uncertainty brought about by Brexit and most crucially sky-high ground rents and business rates.
What the article failed to mention as another possible factor is that…well frankly, our high streets are just plain boring.
Why would I want go to my local high street when it offers the same choice of retailers as every other high street? Why would I go to my local (insert high street store name here) when the experience I get there will be no different from the experience that I’ll get in any of their outlets in any other high street across the country, and almost the same but somehow a bit less than the experience that I would get in their flagship branch in the mega mall shopping centre a few miles away.
When the experience of visiting a high street store is so mind-numbingly repetitious and predictable whether it is in Wood Green, Watford, Warminster or Walsall why on earth wouldn’t I just order online?
Shouldn’t the experience that I have in my local high street store feel a bit more…well… local?
Of course the journos and analysts are absolutely right, and the eye-watering rents and business rates mean that only the nationwide and global chains can afford to rent retail premises, but surely those national and global retailers – and the design firms who work with and for them – are capable of creating a national standard, but building in allowance for local variation, individual personality and character – localising the experience to become more relevant to the geographic location?
There is an argument to be had with local authorities, developers and landlords about how they can help to create preferential market conditions for independent businesses, start-ups and pop-ups to help them establish a presence and bring some much-needed diversity to the high street – a possible alternative, perhaps, to filling empty units with coffee chains or betting shops.
Meanwhile though, while we, as designers, are not in a position to affect economic confidence and stability, or the impact of the discount chains, or many of the other major contributing factors affecting the downturn of the high street, what we can surely do is start a conversation with retailers around how they can inject some personallity and character into individual outlets without compromising their overall brand identity. How can they bring some definition and differentiation into the customer experience to make it more relevant to their community and make the visitor journey more interesting, stimulating and surprising. In short, how we can help to make the local high street experience become more local.