Some would say that the fall into administration of Debenhams this week signals another reason why the high street needs a major rethink, however it also signals something further still, a call for reinvention.
It’s been a strange few years on the British High Street. Far and away the biggest changes we’ve seen on the average high street across the UK and here in Lincolnshire has been the loss of large names. This year has seen Debenhams, a somewhat perennial name in terms of retailers in trouble, slide into administration. We’ve seen this happen, and indeed, end a lot of other names.
A list of the fallen reads like a nostalgic look back to a time when the internet was somewhat of a novelty. Who thought we’d ever see the end of retail behemoths like BHS or see niche specialists vanish like Toys R Us or Maplin?
This recent article on the Guardian tells the story of mass capitalism’s casualties. When it’s presented like this, suddenly the nostalgia seems inappropriate and the ‘told you so’ reactions a little cruel.
There’s been talk that the high street is already dead, but that’s too short sighted. Talk often focuses on dated offerings or appealing to markets that don’t exist any longer. Instead, why aren’t we focusing on what these large retailers aren’t doing?
There’s a gulf between what retailers on the high street offer and what can be done online and something really does need to change. Attempts to save it, like the much-trumpeted but ultimately dismal Portas Pilot towns project which didn’t impact enough to save the towns it aimed to celebrate.
So what can be done? There’s talk of making the shopping experience just that, an actual experience. Customers clearly need a reason to shop, providing more interaction, sleeker shopping environments and better marketing will no doubt improve things. A key understanding what people actually want will also help. Too often we see businesses providing services that sound like a great idea, but in reality, nobody is asking for. Equally frustrating is when companies insist on staying still. If you aren’t updating, improving and staying ahead of the curve, there is often nobody there to pick up the pieces.
The question must be asked, what will the high street become and indeed, do we need these large department stores any more? Are we in fact, living in the age of the small business? If so, that has to be a good thing. We are surrounded by more specialists than ever and incredible levels of innovation.
A recent report also stated that the high street isn’t dead, but should move away from its reliance on retailers. Instead, suggestions have been made that encourage more young professionals to live in town and city centres and more knowledge based jobs.
Can you imagine a high street with a majority of buildings not being used as shops? It might be difficult to now, but the future may be more of a mix. These are fascinating times, even if the scenery is changing faster than we dare imagine.