Should we save our high streets?

Marks and Spencer’s closure on the 4th May continued the exodus of Huddersfield’s high street, while many other business’ precariously cling on during these challenging times. BHS was the first major casualty closing its doors back in August 2016, taking with it 60 jobs. Since then it has remained unoccupied, a ghostly relic to times gone by where giant department store’s reigned supreme and the high streets thrived. Other notable losses include; Adams, Ethel Austin, Greenwoods, Jessops, La Senza, Poundworld and Woolworths. Whereas in the past when one business would close another would step in to replace it, this is no longer the case as numerous premises remain barren. Nor is this epidemic localised to Huddersfield, the impact being felt country wide with the north in particular suffering more than most.

Whilst the internet is an obvious reason for the high streets demise, it is not the only cause of its suffering. Both the financial crisis that began back in 2007, and more recently Brexit, have had significant roles in the demise of the town centre. The global financial crisis resulted in the collapsing of huge financial giants, carrying a ten-year legacy of low wages and public sector cuts. Loans became inherently more difficult to acquire, preventing growth of existing business’ and the development of new ones. 2012-15 showed significant signs of improvement, however, the UK’s decision to leave the EU in 2016 and uncertainty surrounding Brexit has yielded a huge decrease in the value of the pound, with record lows predicted should Britain engage in a ‘no-deal’ exit strategy. Simultaneously, many foreign business’ have scaled back or cancelled orders in the UK, in some cases shifting the focus of production to other countries.

The notion of saving our high streets sounds like a noble quest, but more pertinent questions arise; Should we save our High street? And if so, how do we save our high street? The first point that needs to be confronted is the very nature of capitalism, whose laws determine what thrives and what dies. Quite simply, if the business fails to make money then it failed to offer the consumer what they desired. This has always been the law of the concrete jungle, the previously mentioned giant’s testament to that very notion as they put many small independent stores out of business themselves.

To address the question of whether we should save our high street, we must examine what the street has offered us of late – and honestly it has grown complacent. Tracy Ullman, the manager at a local Card Factory, spoke to t’ about her concerns with the high street. Tracy talked about the council not doing enough to help revive the failing town centre, in particular the high business rates they have to pay and a lack of free parking around the town. It was what she said about both business’ and customer’s that perhaps proved to be of most interest.

‘Businesses need to improve the quality of their merchandise and the services that they are offering, and the customers need to stop shopping online.’ She laughs nervously. ‘but seriously, customers need to get back out into their local shopping centres. Nothing beats that feeling when you get home and your hands are full of shopping bags. You can’t get that online.’

At the heart of this statement is a further issue that many businesses from the high street have failed to address, innovation. Shopping centre’s failure to foresee the threat of the internet nor their ability to adapt to the competition it provides have already seen many stores close their doors. HMV are the latest victims announcing closures in February of this year and the recent entries into administration by long-standing market leaders House of Fraser and Toys R Us stand testament.

Furthermore, the high street has grown lazy and stagnant over recent years, which in turn has significantly reduced the level of satisfaction we extract from such excursions. Returning home from a busy day of shopping, arms laden with bags no longer leaves you with a warm glow or a sense of accomplishment. There are many reasons why this maybe the case; over saturation of the market, ease of availability and, possibly most importantly, a failure to inspire. Retailers rather than create a new ‘era’ of fashion have traded on previously successful trends, rehashing the neon effects of the eighties or imitating sixties chic. Fashions have always borrowed form previous success’ however the key has always been to reinvent, not simply re-present.

The effects of this are two-fold; firstly, for those who experienced the trend the first time around feel as though their ‘time’ has been cheapened, that the sentiment behind the design is merely a replica that represents something entirely different to its originator. Secondly, and in conjunction with the first point, those not old enough to have experienced the fashion first time around are robbed of any sense of belonging to a trend that is defined as being unique to this moment. Ultimately this results in a lack of excitement and satisfaction for the consumer as its nothing new, nor is it definitive of its time. The hippies, the mods, the rockers, the new romantics were all unique to their time; what is unique to this time? What will this era be known as?

So, should we save our high street? The answer is yes and no. There can be no doubt that councils and government could and should do more to help town centres. However, more pertinently business’ need to reinvigorate and evolve the services and products they offer rather than simply blame internet sales and the economy for their troubles. Finally, this could prove to be a defining moment for shopping centres, allowing for independent stores to once again flourish and a platform for local artists and craft merchants to sell their wares. With local artists, designers and independent stores given the space to grow could come a new era, where trends and fashions are defined by location not age and for the truly unique over mass marketed to once again reign supreme.

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