The high street is dead, long live the high street!

The UK has a huge issue to deal with right now. No not the NHS. Not Europe. Not even the public debt crisis. It’s our high streets. As we all know, they are dying a slow painful death. Most of us would like to see them saved; however, when push comes to shove, we tend to put our sentiment to one side in favour of convenience. Instead we shop at the supermarkets. We shop online. And we shop in out-of-town retail parks. In doing so, we’re slowly but surely hammering the nails into the high street coffin. I’m not making a moral judgement; I’m one of them.

The powers that be have recruited Mary Portas to solve the problem. Yet every time another retail chain goes to the ground, the issue raises its head. It was discussed on BBC’s Question Time last night. The usual causes: megalomaniac supermarket chains, inner city parking charges and our increasing digital dependence. I’m not going to waste words and time by adding to this discussion. Instead I’d like to volunteer my take on the solution.

We cannot change this shift in retail behaviour. End of. We simply can’t. No amount of social media petitions; celebrity faces or reports to the Government is going to change it. The horse has not only bolted, it’s acquired a passport, made its way to the airport and somehow got through passport control. Who knows, perhaps in twenty years time retail parks may even suffer the same fate as high streets now – “ha, not laughing now are you eh, Metro Centre?!” Suddenly perhaps we’ll order everything online or on mobile device and it’ll be shipped direct from the depot?

Hopefully not. Life would be pretty dull. We don’t drink out anymore because it’s cheaper to stay in. We don’t shop any more because it’s easier to log on. We’ll become recluses! So let’s assume that everything moves progressively out of town. What do our small retailers do about it? You know, the ones we really like going to: little art shops; boutique clothes; those funny little shops that smell nice with scented candles and tranquil music, though we never actually buy anything.

Well if you can’t beat them – join them. That’s what they do. We want to use them – we really do. But they’re in a really inconvenient spot. Well move then! Go and set up shop next to the ones we’re not so keen on but we have no choice. One slight problem: we only need 250 square feet. The smallest unit on the retail park weighs in at a mighty 2,500 square feet. That’s a lot of scented candles to sell – and nobody buys them anyway.

That is a problem. However it’s the same problem faced by the art shop down the road. And his mate around the corner that sells quirky surf wear is in the same boat. Hang on a minute – what if we teamed up? Formed a kind of union. We could call it…I don’t know…”co-operative”. Then we walk over to Mr Retail Park owner and pay him his rent and outrageous deposit. Do you know that might just work! We could bring the hairdressers with us, the estate agents and the little hardware stores that sell really useful things you can’t find in the megalomaniacs.

And that’s it. You see I really think that would work. Because it’s working already – farmer’s markets are doing a roaring trade. They’re out of town – they’ve all come together and found that loads of people would rather shop there than at their local megalomaniacs. And the economies of scale mean it’s actually quite profitable thank you very much. It’s nothing new of course – we’ve been doing co-operative selling for longer than most of us have been alive.

And what of the high street? Well you know in some places in the UK, high streets are still doing OK. Typically, the historical towns that are easy on the eye survive quite well – buoyed by tourism. It’s the less salubrious towns that need to consider waving the white flag. Give it up and let the developers come in. Turn them into affordable studio apartments for all our youngsters that face a lifetime of living with Mum and Dad.

And in twenty years when the convenience of retails parks becomes no longer convenient? Well they’ve got twenty years to think of a solution for that one.

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