There’s a lot of doom and gloom about the future of the high street, and there has been for years. The advent of online shopping, the rising cost of petrol, the difficulty of parking in the nation’s town centres – these are all among the numerous factors on which the decline of the high street has been blamed. Boarded up shops are a common sight in many towns; pubs close at a rate of 18 a week; and even big retailers such as BHS and Woolworth’s haven’t lived to tell the tale.
But is it really as bad as all that? The depressing stories make good headlines, of course, but there’s cause for optimism as well. While the demise of retailers such as BHS can be attributed to the fact that these businesses have failed to adapt to the 21st century, some retailers and towns alike have been more successful in aligning their strategy with the needs of modern consumers.
Only this month we’ve seen the opening of the biggest ever Primark in Birmingham, and it’s a case study in the possibilities of delivering an experience designed to attract consumers off the internet and into the store. It offers lots of extras including “unique and amazing dining experiences”, a hair and nail studio, personalisation services, free wifi and phone charging, and other offerings designed to add value above what customers could get by shopping online.
And it’s not just individual retailers; whole towns are showing what the future of the high street could look like. The Sunday Times ‘Best Place to Live’ guide made interesting reading and showed that there are plenty of UK towns in which the high street is alive and well.
Of the winner, the Wiltshire town of Salisbury, the Sunday Times wrote of the “thriving marketplace — with Nando’s in a medieval home and the Odeon cinema in a 15th-century building”. On another top entry, Petworth in West Sussex, it said: “the antique shops that used to be the only reason to get out of the Volvo on the way to Goodwood are still in plentiful supply. They have been joined by new galleries and food shops”.
This highlights an important point: that there will always be some things that can’t be done online, from going to the optician to meeting friends for coffee. That explains why beauty salons and coffee shops are among the high street businesses that have enjoyed a boom in recent years.
Therein lies the reason that the high street isn’t a thing of the past: there will always be a need for it. But there’s another important point. Shopping online may be convenient, but it also lacks the personal touch. That’s where the Powys town of Crickhowell – named Britain’s best high street last year – has been so successful.
The Sunday Times notes that it’s Crickhowell’s old-fashioned customer experience that makes it so appealing: “Mr Cashell the butcher will be pulling down his striped awning, while in Askew’s bakery, the ladies stack their bread and bara brith. Webb’s, a pleasingly old-fashioned family-run department store, still delivers to your door, and the Bear is an authentic coaching inn with wood-panelled bars. Book-ish offers conversation, book clubs – the Throw Away (Your Television) Society reading group was launched last month – and a Gruffalo to cuddle up with in the back.”
Central to the reinvention of the high street, then, is our continuing need for a sense of community in an age when so many of our interactions take place online. People increasingly value the personal touch – particularly from independent retailers and eateries, who offer a more authentic alternative to the ubiquitous chains that some say have homogenised the high street.
What’s needed, then, is for the high street to offer an antidote to the anonymity of the internet, and a way of getting back to some of the more appealing aspects of an old-fashioned, simpler way of life. High streets that can offer this more personal experience are the ones likely to buck the trend and enjoy longer-term prosperity.
And don’t forget, A-Plan have a presence in over 90 towns and cities across the country, including Salisbury! If you like to buy your insurance with a personal touch, please pop in to one of our many, friendly, local branches.