Our town centre thinking continues…
This week it’s the turn of another so called “retail institution” the House of Fraser to announce a significant store closure following a shrinking of Mothercare and the demise of the likes of Maplin’s, Toys R Us and a whole raft of retail “brands” (that often actually has done the term “brand” a disservice).
Online shopping is clearly having an impact but there are societal shifts that I believe are at least equally as important. I have written pieces about my views on town centres/high streets on a number of occasions over the past 5 years. I began writing these in 2013:
Then we started to do our bit in the towns we have been working most notably with, the Blackburn is Open initiative. Blackburn is Open led to one of my career highlights, the establishment of the truly uplifting, heartwarming and impactful National Festival of Making (the nine new town centre bars that have opened in past 12 months are being attributed to the confidence inspired by the NFOM).
As a result of all the above I am increasingly being asked to comment on the so called demise of the High Street, the latest being on BBC News yesterday early evening and I have become well versed in my answers which I can summarise as:
a) So many of the retailers are not relevant to new generations. How many young people have ever been in a Debenhams, House of Fraser and BHS?
b) There is a maturing of taste and understanding about the values of disposable income. Why fill your homes and cupboards with things you don’t need, (and that is what most non food retail is prevaricated on) when you could be spending your money on experiences (hence the growth and general buoyancy of leisure, sport, travel, socialising, café culture and events and festivals)? How many people who are “homemakers” today will want or need a set of special occasion cutlery or a special occasion dinner service like our grandparents had? It’s almost laughable that the likes of Debenhams and House of Fraser still have whole departments dedicated to this.
c) With new homes being built 30% smaller than they were in the 1970s and before, there is nowhere to store all those “things you don’t need”.
d) Add to that the fact that the majority of under 30s are in often pokey rental accommodation and having to move annually or biannually, why would you want to drag unnecessary belongings around with you. If you live at home with your parents, most of the space is taken up with the “things they don’t need”!
e) That gets me onto the Millennials and Gen Z’ers who have lower disposable incomes, are living in a society with miserable inequality levels, have poorer job security and unless you have access to “the bank of mum and dad” a much slimmer hope of owning a house to fill with “things you don’t need“ than your parents.
f) Bloomin’ duplication is so pointless and wasteful. Apart from the value to us of competition, do we really need so many stores selling ostensibly the same. The products of Currys, PC World, Maplins, Jessops, Tesco electrical aisles and the rest are being consolidated and rightly so.
g) There is a welcome increasing and embracing of sustainable and ethical thinking. Greenpeace, The Fair Trade Foundation, Oxfam and the like are loved by younger generations and they are doing their job to warn us about the dangers of over consumption, plastic packaging, provenance and ethical sourcing and many retailers are doing little to show their colours in this respect.
h) There is a welcome embracing of independent retailers in the knowledge that these shops point towards a fulfilling and productive life and your hard earned money doesn’t go to some pension fund or fat cat set of retail directors. (Hello Philip Green)
So I salute these new generations who are choosing to shop less, to be more social and it’s time to stop crying about job losses from unproductive, outdated and not needed retailers and create jobs in a more productive independent sector.
And it’s time to really consider what these old department stores and large shops could be turned into in terms of allowing start-ups to have the same ability to “have a go” as Gerardine and I did in the early 80s and maybe to create homes that help to bring 24 hour life into town centres.