Monday, 15 October 2012

Crying foul at supermarkets won't save the High Street. Getting the offer right just might...

Skipton High Street - success in a small town with three supermarkets

In an article containing a vaguely linked set of slightly left-wing presumptions, John Harris in the Guardian explains how the High Street is “under attack”.

Now, dear reader, set aside images of tripod-like Martian war machines stomping into Cheam and Cheltenham or perhaps sinister masked ninja figures rolling grenades into Marks & Spencer and turning over benches or plant pots in the Arndale. No we’re talking here about those besuited plutocrats that the Guardian so hates (bejeaned, Tuscany-dwelling plutocrats are, of course, fine).

The truth is that big business has failed us, twice. First, while distant high street landlords endlessly put up rents, the boom years saw the accelerated replacement of independent shops with the chains whose names – Game, Peacocks, JJB Sports – denoted the stereotypical clone town. Soon enough, the same firms became bywords for the aftershocks of the crash – and left behind the retail equivalent of scorched earth.

Sadly for Mr Harris, the truth is a great deal more prosaic that this – the High Street is dying because people prefer to shop elsewhere. And where they don’t prefer to shop elsewhere, High Streets – or more to the point, town centres – are not dying.

Perhaps Mr Harris should take a trip to Keighley (I know John, it’s in the North) and walk around this pretty ordinary town counting the empty shops. Sadly for Mr Harris’s thesis he won’t find very many. Indeed, if he walks down Cavendish Street, he’ll see an eclectic mix of shops. For sure, there’s a ‘cash converter’ sort of place and a couple of charity shops. But in amongst there’s an old-fashioned cobbler, an independent toy shop, a gift shop or two, a hairdresser and – wonder of wonders – a hardware store run by a man who actually mends things!

All this in a town with three supermarkets (five if you include Aldi and Iceland, six if you include the wonderful Shaan’s Asian supermarket) – it seems that, if you get the environment right and the offer right, town centres can succeed. And that having supermarkets isn’t the death knell for the High Street either.

Mr Harris spends a deal of time championing negative campaign groups such as Tescopoly rather than asking what might be done to improve and develop – even save – the town centre. We should bear in mind that the fastest growing retail sectors are on-line and factory outlets. Even further from the town centre than the terrible Tesco or the sinister Sainsbury. Places that – despite Mr Harris’s worst fears haven’t killed his “adopted” home of Frome.

Frome has seven – yes folks, seven – supermarkets (Sainsbury, Tesco, ASDA, Somerfield, Iceland, Lidl and Co-op) as well as:

...a town centre that has the rare luxury of scores of independent shops.

The truth in all this is that not only is the negative impact of supermarkets overstated (there is a negative impact but it’s on jobs and secondary grocery outlets, the corner shop, rather than town centre comparison shopping) but this is yesterday’s battle. Today we should be thinking about the role of town centres where comparison shopping has moved on-line.

A while ago I wrote about how our view of town centres has to change:

The driver to the success of Main Street isn’t the shop – although to hear us talk about town centres you would think that – it is the relationship we have with that place and the space it provides for the events and activities of our lives. In Bradford, when Pakistan win at cricket, hundreds of fans head for the local centres. Not to shop but to share their happiness at victory.

Yet we distrust such a use for the spaces of our town centres. Many of us grumble about public drinking, about young people gathering together, about hen parties and stag dos. And we certainly dislike political campaigns and religious promotion (unless of course it’s an official and state-sanctioned occasion) – to the point of complaining about these activities.

To make town centres work we need to start thinking about them differently:

1. places of performance – planned or otherwise
2. centres of culture not temples to shopping
3. a locus for excitement and discovery rather than the workaday
4. as venues for communal celebration, sharing and festivity

In the end, town centres have to be wanted. Not because campaigners have driven away choice but because people want to go there – to shop, to eat, to promenade, to listen, to watch, to sing. The negative attitude of John Harris and his sort won’t change a thing. What will change the town centre is making them places that people – old, young, rich, poor – want to visit. Places of leisure and pleasure - centres of delight, the focus of fun.



Jonathan Bagley said...

These arguments are going on now where I live and Asda wishes to add to the two existing supermarkets. Much of the custom will come from a neighbouring town which doesn't have the land to build a supermarket, and also from people who currently either drive to another ASDA eight miles away or shop online (I see a lot of delivery vans). Consequently, much needed extra jobs will be provided. People who need jobs probably feel a little aggrieved at the objections of comfortably off commuters who buy a couple of cup-cakes and some olives at the market each Saturday, yet themselves do most of their shopping at supermarkets.

SadButMadLad said...

Jonathan, sounds like the same place I live in too! I would love ASDA to come to our town even though I would still visit Lidl because I already ignore Morrisons.

Simon, I was just saying that as we drove back from Badford through Cullingworth from visiting a warehouse from which we normally buy online. I remarked on the number of shops which weren't decked out for selling to passing trade. Instead they were plastered with URLs.

The high street is no more. Long live the high street - in a different form.