GUEST BLOG – It’s Not The Internet – It’s You! by Dan Thompson

by Dan Thompson

In the first of a series of Guest Blogs, our good friend, writer, artist and visionary Dan Thompson writes about the changing High Street. Dan was one of the pioneers of Pop Up Shops (he wrote the Pop Up For Dummies book), and has undertaken many projects that have truly affected towns and communities.

You can subscribe to Dan’s Substack at https://substack.com/@danthompson1

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We’re seeing another round of shop closures, led by companies like Body Shop who once knew their corner of the market so well, and had a mission so exactly aligned with their customers, that it felt like they could never fall.

So we’re talking again about what we can see that has changed, and that leads to ‘the internet has killed the High Street’.

But what we’re talking about with Body Shop and Matalan following Paperchase and Wilko is not the High Street – the big chains we’re seeing close down left the High Street long ago. 

They mostly exist in retail parks at the edge of town, or in big shopping centres*

And on our actual High Streets, whether in the town centre or the more local neighbourhood parade, it’s not the internet that killed shops.

What has really impacted on High Streets is one thing, one big thing, and it’s really obvious. It’s the supermarket….themajor supermarkets … [that] have delivered highly convenient, needs-based retailing which serves today’s consumers well,” Mary Portas said in 2011. They’re the killer.

 

The neighbourhood shops of my childhood (I’m nearly 50, so the neighbourhood of the 1980s and 1990s) were a small parade between the council estate where I grew up and a more recent development of suburban semis and bungalows. It was a 15 minute town: there was another parade at the other end of our estate, another at the far end of the neighbouring newer estate, too. Everybody had the basics within a 15 minute walking radius.

There were two greengrocers, a prize-winning butcher, a baker, a florist, a pet shop, a newsagent. There was a hardware store, a small electrical store (it was both small, and a seller of small things), and a bike-shop. There were two chain grocers – a Co-op and a Spar, both tiny in comparison with modern stores. A small bank and a Post Office, too. 

Of the ten independents on that list, nine have been replaced by your trip to the supermarket. That’s the shift in your behaviour that killed them, not the decision to shop online* (that came later). 

Remember what shopping used to be like, moving from one shop to another? The Saturday girl selling you seasonal vegetables. The bloody-aproned butcher, who could explain the best way to cook a particular cut. The lady in the hardware store who could sell the individual washer you needed for a job, or a small twisted bag of a dozen screws, the man in the electrical store who could fix a toaster.

The greengrocer, butcher, florist, pet shop, newsagent, hardware store, even the small electrical store – all replaced by a big, out-of-town supermarket, a drive away**. 

While shop jobs have never been great, they were at least local, close to where you lived, regular, and the shop was open reasonable hours. They were available for young people, and suitable for older people with a family. Early starts, maybe, but zero hours contracts, changing shifts, midnight shelf-stacking, Sunday working? No. And you knew the people in shops 20 or 30 years ago, now you don’t. You’re more isolated.

And is it, as Portas said, serving us well? It’s no quicker – driving to the supermarket, getting stuck in traffic, wandering through a giant shed, and scanning your own goods on the way out takes longer than walking to the shop and back. 

And think of the problems you’ve created on the way. More cars, streets where children can no longer safely play, countryside torn up for retail parks and road systems and – out of sight – the huge warehouses to service all of this. 

And the farmers who haven’t sold their fields for edge-of-town retail parks compromise their custodianship of the land for the supermarkets that demand low prices, and see their profits fall year-on-year despite cutting costs wherever they can.

But despite all of this, the supermarkets still haven’t killed the High Street.

Since I started seriously working on High Streets and in town centres across England, we’ve seen a return of bookshops and record stores, and a rise in small-batch bakers and coffee roasters. There are a dozen alternatives to supermarkets – stores where membership gets you cheaper food, farm shops, and greengrocers that can tell you where everything was grown. There are maker spacers, artists studios, men-sheds, and Fab Labs who can help you fix things. There’s more housing, as people return to town and city centres again. 

This isn’t just nostalgia. These things are new, embrace technology, blend the real world of their physical location with the equally real world we access through our phones and other devices.

And there are dozens of places you can look for inspiration. Folkestone’s Creative Quarter, Margate’s Old Town, the Piece Hall in Halifax, North Laine in Brighton, Brixton Village in London, the glorious arcades in Leeds – there are examples of different models, at different scales, with different ambitions, across the country. But they all show a mix of retail, workspace, social, residential, and civic use is viable.

Of course it’s not perfect: while Margate’s Old Town and Northdown Road are doing well, half of the town’s High Street is empty and bleak***. There are still problems to fix, everywhere. 

The High Street’s not the thing you remember, but then, it never was. What you remember is being young, and being excited. The first major government funds I can find to address the problems facing town centres come not from ten years ago, or even twenty, but a hundred. In the 1920s, central government started giving local councils funds to clear Victorian slums and build something new in town centres

But in the last ten years, we’ve had Portas Pilots, Town Teams, Town Deals, High Street Heritage Action Zones, Levelling Up funding and Priority Places and none have even started to affect change.

That change has come from committed community groups, entrepreneurs with fresh ideas, individuals with good ideas and dogged determination.

You want to know who can make the High Street better? It’s you.

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*They exist in places that are closed ecosystems – people drive in, use the identikit shops and cafes in this one place, drive home again. Because they’re closed, they’re fragile, each loss is serious, and flex, change, adaptation are difficult.

**The UK, by the way, has one of the highest rates of online shopping: and that’s because after the move to the soul-less, joyless experience of a large supermarket, shopping online was no great sacrifice.

***People often say that High Streets need car-parking right outside the shop, but they don’t. Nobody used to drive to the shops. You’re the traffic you’re stuck in.

Margate has a distinct set of problems. A town of 50,000 people used to double in size when daytrippers arrived, and a busy day can still see an extra 30,000 people in town. Lots of Margate’s shops were never year-round, sustainable, profitable businesses. The truth is, every town has its own quirks, and distinct opportunities.