The news that Blockbuster, HMV and Jessops have all gone into administration within the same week has revived debate about the future of the high street. Although the high street is suffering from the depressed state of the economy as much as, if not more than, other businesses, the failure of these large retail chains is clearly more than a consequence of a prolonged recession. It is a sign of new consumption habits, created by irreversible technological change.
We have to face the fact that, in future, many of the large chains that we have become used to will have less presence on the high street. What, if anything, can replace them and what can be done to prevent the potential collapse of our city centres?
Initiatives such as the Portas pilots have a role to play. Taking a strategic view of the high street’s future, and promoting improved management and collaboration, are all positive steps.
But if more and more people continue to shop online then small-scale high street interventions will not be enough to support vibrant city centres. Instead we need to think of town centres and their economies as a whole, rather than looking at them simply as shopping islands.
High density centres with significant daytime office employment generate footfall on the high street during the day and into the evening. The more densely occupied city centres are, the busier they will be and the greater the size of the potential market for the local high street. In other words, there are benefits associated with growth of offices in city centres as well as growth of retail.
Research we published last year showed that even mid-sized cities that enjoyed net employment growth prior to recession, such as Preston and Sunderland, have seen their city centre economies shrink. Centres that are abandoned by office based businesses will be the first to see their high streets empty, creating a vicious cycle as quality of place declines and employers are put off locating in centres.
Increasing the size of the market through investing in office space doesn’t mean that people will buy as many DVDs as they used to, but means that there may be a place for highly specialised shops and service providers to take up newly vacant properties. Recognising a new culture of ‘browse in store, buy online’ might mean changing the mix and type of stores in the high street, for example providing more coffee shops and leisure activities. Planners and town centre managers can also learn lessons from chains ranging from Argos to John Lewis that have successfully adopted the new culture of ‘click and collect’.
There is a great deal that policy makers can do to address the situation on our high streets, and we will be devoting more of our work this year to the future of city centres. But the first step is to realise that the high street of the superconnected age will inevitably be different from the one we recognise, and that we need to start thinking differently and innovatively about ways to revitalise and reconfigure our city centres so that we can anticipate rather than simply react to rapid change.