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The rise and fall of the High Street

I cant help but think that the High Streets kind of had it coming. The apparent demise is a fulfillment of the law of unintended consequences.

Let me first say that I don't believe this is the actual demise - more a rebalancing, although it may well be painful and a slow recovery.

When I was younger, the town centres were a hive of activity and commerce. You could actually enjoy spending time there because it was not just a shopping chore. The retailers were mostly independent and run by the owners, who knew their products and their customers. You could tap into their knowledge and get advice on what you might need and how to use it. The greengrocer knew where the produce came from and how fresh it was, the butcher and fishmonger the same and you could always get tips on how to best prepare and cook the meat or fish. The bakery sold fresh bread and the ironmonger sold just about everything you needed for the home.

Then the chains started to take over and the growth of the supermarkets meant that the independents were driven out of business and when the supermarkets moved to out of town superstores the spaces left were filled by the banks, building societies, charity shops and chain stores. It was then the high streets became generic, losing their identity and individualism and, as more and more small shops closed their space was taken by the chains - the national brands and each town centre became a clone of all the others.

Which was all well and good for the chains because they had little or no competition and so grew and grew as they dominated the market, making ever more profits. Of course the landlords were quick to realise how much more rent they could charge such profitable businesses and the local authorities jumped on the money bandwagon, imposing higher and higher rates. The authorities also had another revenue stream - parking charges which brought in millions from customers who had nowhere else to go. Then, as road traffic increased and the towns became ever more congested, the planners decided to encourage the construction of the out of town shopping mall, which together with the cost of parking took people away from the town and caused a slump in the fortunes of the high street.

The town centres fought back with pedestrianisation and the newly reinvigorated Farmers markets.This pedestrianisation improved the ambiance dramatically and it seemed to have brought people back. The rise of the coffee houses, food outlets and markets helped and the leisure industry and fashion clothing all kept things lively. And of course, rent and rates remained high.

The rise of the internet gave people opportunities they never had before. On line vendors had lower overheads so could sell cheaper than the shops, entertainment became instantly on demand via download, and smart phones ( unthinkable just a few years ago ) meant that in one device you have a camera, video recorder, voice communications, computer, internet, sat nav, games, music recognition, QC readers, MP3 player,TV and. e-reader. Which effectively made all other single purpose devices obsolete. There was only ever to be one outcome. Those retailers that relied on one sector of the market were doomed.

So where next? There is, I believe a market for the smaller boutique type specialist shops. High end, quality food, unusual homeware, clothing, perishable goods and so on. I can imagine that there will be kitchen and bathroom retailers who will use technology to create virtual displays which can replicate the customers existing room and show how it will look finished. I can envisage the growth of the " order on line and collect in store " shopping - a glorified modern version of Argos, who are already doing this. Fashion stores will use technology to show you how the clothes look on you. They will then be sized exactly and ready to take home.

Opportunities await therefore. However there is the question of cost. Rents and rates are far too high for start up businesses and independents. Someone is going to have to make the decision to cut costs. The property owners will need to realise that a smaller return is better than none. Local Authorities likewise need to accept lower rates to encourage business back. In the short to medium term this will hurt, but it will be less painful than the consequences of doing nothing.

The Project Master