After the retail apocalypse, what next for the high street?

After the retail apocalypse, what next for the high street?

Out-of-town shopping centres and online giants decimated our town centres – what can local spaces still offer that the internet can’t?

It’s not as if no one saw it coming. The decline of physical shopping, the business of getting yourself to an actual place and receiving actual goods from an actual person in return for actual cash, has been predicted – prematurely, as it turned out — since the end of the last century. It was not news in 2011 when David Cameron’s government appointed the retail consultant and broadcaster Mary Portas as a “high street tsar”, in an attempt to reverse their failing fortunes. Still less was it news in 2017, when the pitifully tiny £1.2m that she was given to revive 12 “pilot” towns unsurprisingly failed, with 969 units having closed during the initiative.

One could choose other landmarks along the journey, the point in 2015, for example, when Amazon surpassed Walmart as the most valuable retailer in the United States, or the moment in February when it came to be worth 2.5 Wallmarts. This year, in Britain at least, has been a particularly bleak one for those businesses that somehow seemed part of the national furniture. Well known names such as Toys R Us, Maplin, Debenhams, House of Fraser, Evans Cycles and Mothercare have been either shrunk or terminated, with 85,000 retail jobs lost in the first nine months of 2018.

One symptom could be found on Black Friday, the hideous sales-boosting device imported from the US. Over there, on the day after Thanksgiving, shoppers are beating down the doors in search of bargains. Over here, despite the lack of a national meaningful date or public holiday, they have been encouraged to do the same. The only problem is that, this year, the sales generated by Black Friday are more and more heading online.

One by one, the things that used to be done only by shops have been picked off. Travel agencies, video rentals, banks and bookshops are now joined on the endangered list by takeaways, which might have been thought an imperishable fixture, thanks to delivery services such as Deliveroo. It would be dumb to foretell their complete demise, especially in high-value places like the west end of London, but shops, like CDs and DVDs, like typewriters, film photography and answering machines before them, are losing their quality of inevitability.

The difference with shopping is that its departure is leaving behind swaths of redundant urban fabric. The identity and self-esteem of entire towns and city districts is wrapped up with retail – what, for example, is a “market town” if it doesn’t have a market? As it has become ingrained that one of the main forms of shared public life is shopping, its loss becomes an existential threat to society. The idea is summed up in the phrase “high street”, which carries with it ideas of locality and community, but is also routinely used as shorthand for “shopping”. The term “high street brands” gets applied to chains of stores that have no presence in high streets, but only in shopping centres and malls.

Retailers spent the 20th century cloning every town and it doesn’t work. Zara, John Lewis: how boring is that? – Bill Grimsey

The resulting voids will be of the scale of those left by the closure of docks and factories, with the difference that those left by retail will often be in the centres of towns and cities. A fundamental turning around is in prospect of the ways that towns and cities are inhabited. It might, for example, lead to yet more centripetal and atomised forms of existence, a world of cocoons, as physically isolated as they are digitally connected. It might, to look on the bright side, lead to a rediscovery of the things we like about human contact. For it required an impoverished view of civic life that it ended up being so dependent on shopping. And it is because the pleasures of shopping had become so meagre that it became vulnerable to takeover by the internet.

It is important, in the great sweep of things, to distinguish between different types of physical shopping. There are markets, high streets, shopping centres, department stores, retail parks and megamalls. Until now, these types have tended to be at war with one another – the battle of the high street against the mall has been going for decades – and they still are, even though they all have a common rival in the internet. They are likely to have different fates of different significance: what happens when a town centre loses its life and purpose counts for more than the disappearance of an out-of-town mall, which mostly leaves a brownfield site that might be used for, say, housing. It is also important to note differences between geographical locations and levels of prosperity. Dwellers in big cities have certain kinds of relationship to what might be called their high streets; those of rural towns have another.

What you hear from more or less everyone concerned with physical retail is that the future lies in offering things that the internet can’t, in providing for the needs of humans as social and embodied beings. Just as the retreat of other media has created nostalgic reactions – for vinyl, for film, for manual typewriters – so retail experts now like to talk about the importance of “experience”. This can mean, for example, what the now ex-tsar Mary Portas has called the “brand temples” by which Nespresso immerses customers in the world of coffee capsules, or Dyson in the world of domestic appliance, curated, calibrated environments in which the actual product is made precious by its lack of abundance.

One of the more ebullient figures in the field is Lara Marrero, of the architects Gensler, for whom almost everything is positive. For her it’s less a case of death than reincarnation, the emergence of a bright new world in which a brand “is engaging its customers at every single touch-point”, in which physical spaces work with events and social media to enthral their followers. Here we are rewarded for surrendering “an incredible amount of value” – that is, the personal information we carelessly scatter about the internet – by being offered experiences perfectly tailored to our desires. After which, of course, we reward the brands for rewarding us by buying their products.

The resulting voids will be of the scale of those left by the closure of docks and factories, with the difference that those left by retail will often be in the centres of towns and cities. A fundamental turning around is in prospect of the ways that towns and cities are inhabited. It might, for example, lead to yet more centripetal and atomised forms of existence, a world of cocoons, as physically isolated as they are digitally connected. It might, to look on the bright side, lead to a rediscovery of the things we like about human contact. For it required an impoverished view of civic life that it ended up being so dependent on shopping. And it is because the pleasures of shopping had become so meagre that it became vulnerable to takeover by the internet.

It is important, in the great sweep of things, to distinguish between different types of physical shopping. There are markets, high streets, shopping centres, department stores, retail parks and megamalls. Until now, these types have tended to be at war with one another – the battle of the high street against the mall has been going for decades – and they still are, even though they all have a common rival in the internet. They are likely to have different fates of different significance: what happens when a town centre loses its life and purpose counts for more than the disappearance of an out-of-town mall, which mostly leaves a brownfield site that might be used for, say, housing. It is also important to note differences between geographical locations and levels of prosperity. Dwellers in big cities have certain kinds of relationship to what might be called their high streets; those of rural towns have another.

What you hear from more or less everyone concerned with physical retail is that the future lies in offering things that the internet can’t, in providing for the needs of humans as social and embodied beings. Just as the retreat of other media has created nostalgic reactions – for vinyl, for film, for manual typewriters – so retail experts now like to talk about the importance of “experience”. This can mean, for example, what the now ex-tsar Mary Portas has called the “brand temples” by which Nespresso immerses customers in the world of coffee capsules, or Dyson in the world of domestic appliance, curated, calibrated environments in which the actual product is made precious by its lack of abundance.

One of the more ebullient figures in the field is Lara Marrero, of the architects Gensler, for whom almost everything is positive. For her it’s less a case of death than reincarnation, the emergence of a bright new world in which a brand “is engaging its customers at every single touch-point”, in which physical spaces work with events and social media to enthral their followers. Here we are rewarded for surrendering “an incredible amount of value” – that is, the personal information we carelessly scatter about the internet – by being offered experiences perfectly tailored to our desires. After which, of course, we reward the brands for rewarding us by buying their products.

Source: The Guardian

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