High Streets: Are We In or Out?

The Guardian’s ‘SocialEnterprise’ has just published a piece quoting Dragon, Theo Paphitis, saying that the future of our High Streets is in the hands of young entrepreneurs. The same article also quotes the Centre for Retail Research’s Armageddon-like report on the High Street that claims 20% of all stores will close in the next 5 years. Happy days are here again …

The report (from Natalie Campbell, founding director of A Very Good Company) echoes Theo’s concerns, claiming that in the plethora of High Street rejuvenation initiatives of recent years, few have engaged effectively with young people. Natalie says that high streets have “become irrelevant for many of these young people“. She cites a new report by social enterprise somewhereto_ that says 26% of young Britons feel high street shops are not relevant and almost one in five say they don’t visit their local high street at all. The result – a twitter-let campaign ‘re:store’ (#HighStreetHeist) … fronted by Theo.

It is great that the somewhereto_ campaign has engaged with youngsters. But putting into perspective, it is in just five disused shop spaces “across the UK” … for a six week campaign. I recall speaking with good folk at somewhereto_ (an Olympic legacy project) some three years ago, trying then to get retail property owners engaged. Three years on, their website lists just 22 ‘shops’ as available nationwide [link removed as it no longer exists]. Theo may realise the opportunity. Sadly few of his retail sector colleagues seem to share his enthusiasm.

The truth of the matter is that it is not just young people who have a disconnect with high streets. Almost everyone is (becoming) disillusioned, frustrated and bored by their local high street’s lack of understanding for what shoppers want … and that has been happening for years.

I applaud any organisation or person’s wish to engage with youngsters to aid their opportunities in life. I also welcome the Government’s commitment to involve communities in the high street debate. I hope it is genuine and not simply more elaborate window dressing a la the Portas Pilots. Natalie concludes her Guardian article with the charge that “young people need to be engaged in this agenda and empowered to make the most of the opportunities around their high streets.” They do. But so do I. And you. All of us do. Those youngsters quoted in the somewhereto_ report are not disowning the high street. Quite the reverse. The high street is disowning them. And me. And you. All of us.

I have worked with retail destinations for 20+ years. For the last four years, my work has been focused almost entirely on understanding how retail destinations communicate with customers – and vice versa. In days gone by, shopping centres and retailers just talked at customers. Today, that doesn’t work. High streets must engage with customers, listen to them, and communicate with them … day in, day out, and certainly not simply 9-5.

Changes in digital delivery and the explosion of social media channels means it is no longer the stuff of myth and dragons. The opportunity is very, very real. As shoppers, we get it. As high streets, the vast majority just doesn’t have a clue.

If they realise the opportunity, they really could engage with us all – youngsters, the middle aged and the elderly. Then we’d all have somewhere to shop, meet friends, engage and enjoy our communities in the way we’d all like. If they continue to fail, we’ll all lose out.

I agree 100% with Theo. Youngsters are tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. But our High Streets need help now – from us all. I believe all of us are ready to step up to the challenge to support our communities. But town and city centres are living in the past and, as customers, we’re not going to do all the work. In true Dragons’ Den style, we’re keen to invest, but it has to be a two-way (high) street, otherwise … with regret … we’re out.


This Blog was first published on Huffington Post 2013

31/07/2013 12:51 BST | Updated 28/09/2013 06:12 BST