Want to revive the British High Street? Overcome Victimhood, Nostalgia and Myopia!

March 2011

It is easy to generalise about the malaise affecting British High Streets – i.e. there are too many empty shops, but generalisations about meaningful solutions all too often descend into superficial sound bites that help no‐one.

For a start, no two ‘High Streets’ are the same. Take the High Street in Aylesbury, West Ealing’s Broadway, Sheffield’s Ecclesall Road and Bondgate in Alnwick. As different as chalk and cheese. And then, in a league of its own, there is the residential Marylebone High Street area, the most brilliantly choreographed outdoor shopping mall in the country – largely controlled and fostered over decades by one astute landlord, the Howard De Walden estate.

Simply put, it is a fiendishly complex issue and there is no single remedy for the British High Street out there. And let no‐one say that all those empty shops are down to a lack of attention by the retail property industry or councils. In fact, and irritatingly for observers, countless reports and column inches have been written over the years, and so many studies and manifestos made, it’s hard to grasp that all those ideas and recommendations have led to…well, so little.

For some commentators, the reason for this state of affairs is simple: It’s all the fault of those bullying supermarkets and those cloning multiples that mislead all the millions of naïve consumers who every week decide to forsake their High Street for lower prices, more convenience, safer comfort and a more satisfying shopping experience.

Sure, Tesco & Co and some planners do have cases to answer, but so what? It is reality and no great retail messiah will come and undo it all. Victimhood has no future! Carry on perceiving the British High Street as a victim and see it dying even faster because there is indeed a structural tide against it. Feel sorry for it, and see it withering into whinging obsolescence.

No, there is only way forward: Turn the victim into a very local warrior. Assemble a ‘Coalition of the Determined’ that, armed with strategic and entrepreneurial battle plans, unites local politicians, landlords, retailers, caterers and civil servants into one purposeful force that puts CUSTOMERS at the centre and understands that the state of their ‘High Street’ is the result of their success or failure…and theirs alone! Indeed, local politicians should recognise that funnelling local energy into such a ‘Coalition of the Determined’ is their primary duty; they hardly deserve to be in power otherwise.

Yet, for such a task force to succeed, it has to agree on some fundamental pre‐conditions of success. A number of these will be governed by local factors and by the availability of financial instruments, but there are at least three principles that are so elementary to success that they apply to every High Street in the country. Curiously, none of these ‘teachings’ are new and they have shaped mankind for years, but they are all too often ignored when it comes to making revival plans for our High Streets:

1. Abraham Maslow sets priorities.

Psychologist Dr. Maslow’s created the seminal work on the Hierarchy of Needs that ranks fundamental human priorities. And too many High Street’s and City Centre’s ignore Maslow’s insights.

Take ‘personal safety’ for example: No High Street marketing effort, however creative, will succeed if shoppers feel insecure and uncomfortable.

  • Perception, not crime statistics, is the High Street reality and unfortunately, it is a reality that takes a long time to change and is shaped by what happens during day and night. Despite Sheffield’s valiant efforts to attract shoppers to its refurbished High Street area, I recall asking two ladies, emerging from John Lewis, why they were not shopping there. Their answer came instantly: “We’d never go there…scares us”. One reason for the edge‐of‐town Meadowhall Shopping Centre’s huge success, for sure.
  • Maslow also provides invaluable help to town branding committees in the fight against all‐things‐to‐all‐ people platitudes. What do you want your High Street brand to stand for? More importantly still – what do you NOT want it to stand for?

Far too few know! And for goodness sake, resist the urge to commission a new logo before you do.

2. Adam Smith rules the minds. Nostalgia is a luxury for the few.

Adam Smith wasn’t necessarily popular, and neither will be my assertion that despite all the feel good factors about ‘buying local’ and ‘independent traders’, the simple truth is that sustainable success in the High Street rests on satisfying, first and foremost, the matrix of ‘self interests’ of the punter. Treat the ‘local loyalty’ factor as no more than another welcome bonus, but don’t rely on it for salvation. Instead, work like mad to provide tangible benefits fit for the locality and the target audience.

  • Not so long ago, hairs were pulled out about ‘Clone Town’ Britain and there was much hostility towards the bad multiples. Well, critics will soon get more than they wished for – most UK Multiples plan to close dozens of locations, many in medium to smaller‐ sized towns adding to High Street misery. So here is an unpopular thought for romantics, driven by the self‐interest of the High Street: Value independents and multiples alike.If there are options to mollycoddle a retailer with incentives, seek to make it a performance –related incentive that measures their particular contribution to the overall attractiveness of the High Street. The research tools exist and results should be published every quarter for all local citizens to see! Shopping Centre owners call his portfolio management, and the real challenge is to create an organisational structure that can at least go some way to emulate the professionalism of proven retailing practices on the High Street.
  • Is such focus on ‘quality of delivery’ a pipedream? No, at least not in Edinburgh. This newspaper clipping is a few years old now, but nothing but praise for the councillor whose decision created the story. And please note that is was done because poor performances may affect trade: Adam Smith Rules OK!

3. Aristotle to cure ‘landlord myopia’

Not the best moment to cite Greeks and Economics in the same breath, but Aristotle is surely an exception with his observation that ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’.

Every successful shopping centre operator lives by that mantra, but when it comes to managing our High Street such basics are all but forgotten. Time and again, root causes for dying High Streets can be traced back to the fragmented ownership of shops, the pursuit of narrow and misguided interests by landlords or politicians (not quite the ‘self‐interest’ Adam Smith had in mind!), an unwillingness or a planning refusal to adapt shop footprints to modern retailing needs and, all in all, the sheer impossibility to manage ‘the whole’.

These days, High Street landlords have to comprehend that their long‐term asset values do not ultimately arise from the ‘property business’, but from being a positive, flexible and contributing part of the ‘community‐based experience economy’.

Crack that nut and many High Streets will start to bloom again.

On reflection then, the problem of the British High Street is not a lack of knowledge or imagination of what to do. And yes, government has a positive role to play in enabling such ‘Enterprise Streets’ with encouraging new economic models (e.g. Tax Incremental Financing) and legal structures, but success will depend almost exclusively on orchestrating a local group of determined leaders that cast victimhood aside, look to the future for salvation rather than trying to recreate nostalgic memories and cure key stakeholders of myopic short‐termism.

On balance, are there any reasons for ‘High Street’ optimism? Yes‐ish…

First, there are some great examples of local initiatives that can inspire others, such as the Plymouth City Centre Company, which galvanised local leaders and retailers into one effective taskforce to tackle High Street problems in a very professional manner. Certainly a refreshing alternative to many of the inward‐ looking vested interest associations that are better at complaining then creating.

Second, history has shown time and again, that when times are really tough and constraints are aplenty such as now, creativity soars and the proverbial heads get knocked together to drive new thinking forward. The time is right; local leaders arise…

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