Do We Need the High Street?

'In conversation with Huw Thomas'

Our ‘In conversation with Huw Thomas’ series is written by blogger Bethan Williams, alongside PMC. Based on conversations with our Managing Director, Huw Thomas. Bethan is an anthropology graduate turned dance teacher turned blogger and writer. This series takes snippets of the conversations between Huw and Bethan, where their interests and areas of knowledge overlap, and turn them into pieces which are relevant to retail and business in general.

Continuing our theme of digital vs. physical shopping experiences, last time we met, Huw proposed the question do we even need High Streets anymore? This got me thinking.

For my part, I largely dislike the process of shopping in physical stores. I’m often overwhelmed by the noise, choice and sheer volume of goods. This was exacerbated particularly by the Christmas period and my efforts to fight my way through the crowds of shoppers, buskers, street sellers, offers, reward schemes and blaring music to find gifts for friends and family. Ironically, it was only because I left my shopping until the last possible minute that I didn’t do most of it online for fear it wouldn’t be delivered on time.

So, when it comes to the question do we need the high street, my personal answer is, in its current incarnation, probably not. Call me a cynic but I can’t be the only person who finds the impersonal nature of town centres and shopping complexes overwhelming and miserable?

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that even I don’t think High Streets could have their place. After the rush and mayhem of Christmas was over, I received a text from a childhood friend who no longer lives locally; ‘back in town for New Year, coffee?’. We had the most beautiful time, in exactly the same town centre spaces, mooching around, stopping in coffee shops to refuel and chatting the whole time. The nature of my interaction and the requirements of my visit to the High Street had altered and, as such, my experience of the physical space was completely different.

Huw told me that 85% of sales in Britain still happen in physical stores so it’s clear that shopping this way is still important to people. However, it’s impossible to ignore that in so many towns, villages and cities, the number of boarded up shops is increasing. Moreover, the speed with which new shops open and then close again, only to be replaced by another store facing the same fate suggests an inability to survive on the High Street. It shows a failure of the current model.

I’m just about old enough to remember being engaged with my local town centre before and after the 2008 financial crash. I remember the atmosphere of the town from being a child. It was busy with lots of window displays to look at and people moving through with purpose. My adult experiences are all about boarded up shop fronts and exhausted looking people trying to scrape their way through a food shop or get new clothes for growing children.

I think we do need the High Street but, as with many other commentators, I believe something needs to change. This little series of ‘In Conversation with Huw Thomas’ is going to explore what town centres of the future might look like. It’s a topic I’ve touched on before. I’ll return to the battle between personal and impersonal shopping experiences. But it’s a slightly different approach because I’m going to look at High Streets as leisure activities; social and sensory experiences, and the importance of this for the communities who use them.

 

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