'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.

“A growing body of research argues that consumers’ expectations today go well beyond the functionality that town centres can provide in terms of their retail offer. Instead, it is the quality of the overall town centre experience that is becoming key to visitor engagement, satisfaction and local resident loyalty.”

This was taken from a 2015 report on the post-2008 management of town centres. Remember in my previous piece where I described my quite contrasting experiences trying to Christmas shop vs having a coffee and a wander round my local High Street with a friend?  For me, this proves that it is the experiential aspect of town centres which will decide whether they thrive or die over the coming years.

It doesn’t take a complex piece of academic research to see that the purpose of our town centres has shifted from a place of necessity where food and home supplies were purchased to a place of leisure. The remaining food and clothes shops can now be found nestled in among coffee shops, gyms, restaurants and bars as well as places for experiences; indoor ski slopes, cinemas and ice rinks. As I see it, the High Streets of the early 21st Century are part way between the necessary shopping arenas of the past and the leisure spaces of the potential future; places where we nurture social interactions and tactile experiences.

Many commentators seem intent on one question; how can we save Britain’s stagnating High Streets, and should we even be trying to? Perhaps it’s time to give them over to the digital realm? To me, this is the wrong question. Maybe it’s time to reframe it from ‘how do we save the high street?’ to ‘how do we create a new high street experience for a new generation?’.

Generation Y, the post millennium babes, are the social media kings and queens. They’re the masters of experience and the purveyors of the bucket list. They need something sparkly to put on their Instagram feeds and maybe the High Streets of the 21st Century can give them that.

High Streets need their own unique brand. They need tribes of consumers willing to buy into the experience of shopping there or to frequent the coffee shops and bars, share the fun on their social media and attract new people into the lifestyle and the community they’re creating. The much-mocked process of gentrification – the transformation of forgotten city areas into hipster idles – is a prime example of how adapting to a new generation of consumers can turn stagnant shopping precincts into thriving High Streets.

The Association of Town and City Management have published a questionnaire designed to find out what ‘personality type’ your town should be and what different types might look like. This includes who shops there, what their income looks like and what kinds of shops will provide for them. Following their lead, maybe it’s time we started thinking about town centre spaces and High Streets more as unified brands than a collection of individual outlets? Who knows, this transition from places of necessity to places of leisure might just save the High Street after all!


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