Sunday, 16 June 2013

I'd love for the Women's Institute to save the high street but it won't


The Women’s Institute is a great organisation – not just because it (somewhat childishly) slow-hand clapped Tony Blair or because of those ladies in the Dales who took their clothes off. No, the WI is important because is encapsulates the importance of doing things rather than calling for other people to do things.

Those ‘things done’ might not be earth-changing and indeed might be the ideal target for ever-so-slightly smug comedians (usually the ones who are, you know, faintly embarrassed at being middle-class or worse still posh). But they are ‘things done’ which makes them vastly more valuable than either ‘things discussed’ or ‘things we want someone else – usually the government – to do’.

Which brings us to saving the high street:

The group’s 212,000 strong membership will turn its attention to boosting local town centres, small retailers and communities. There will be a lobbying campaign on a local and national level and it hopes to use its strength to influence Government policy.

It seems a shame that the WI – at least nationally – have slipped from the idea of ‘things done’ and into becoming just another lobbying organisation. One hopes that there is a little more to this campaign than just bothering MPs or trying to ‘influence government policy’. There is a little hope in that the aim is for WI members to do something – or so says Marylyn Haines Evans, chair of the public affairs committee:

“We are not calling on our members to boycott online shopping or to stop using out-of-town shopping centres and major supermarkets. What we are asking is that they go first to their local shops.”

This is admirable. And of course will make absolutely no difference at all to the prospects for the town centre, the high street or the local parade of shops. Not just because there aren’t enough WI members (many of who are already the sorts who use their local shops anyway) but because the high street – even the little local centre simply isn’t about shopping any more. Don’t get me wrong, there will still be shops including those treasured (but underused butchers, bakers and greengrocers) but we’ll head for the centre as a result of other appeals and interests – mostly because of leisure and pleasure.

The little parade of shops might work because it has a little coffee shop and deli or a child care centre. Maybe the presence of specialist housing for older people might help as they prefer the short walk to the shops over the bus ride to Tesco. And it will work even better if there's a little park where folk can sit or a playground for the children. The new mini-supermarkets that cause such consternation will help too as on-line customers pop in for their ‘click and collect’ groceries. The old ‘secondary’ retail location has a good future – it may look a little different from the parade we remember from our childhood but it will work.

It’s the next level up – the town centre – that there’s a worry. The comparison bit of comparison shopping is increasingly done on-line. Even in the malls and centres shoppers are checking goods they fancy against prices on-line – either to give them a bargaining tool in the store or, more likely, to click, buy and have delivered. Town centre retail will be more about things you can’t get online so easily, things like care and beauty where you need to person to provide the attention and titivation. Plus places that are more about brand or event than about sales – the idea of a book shop where rather than to buy a book people go to meet authors, to hear readings or simply to sit and chill isn’t so far away, and we’ve already got shops and spaces from Disney, Panasonic and (in the Far East at least) big spirits brands such as Johnny Walker.

This is retailing as entertainment, a distance away from the everyday task of getting things we need – the weeks shopping, clothes for work or school, things to mend and fix. And for town centres it is part of the mix – not everything but important as retail changes. Alongside this will be the ever changing mix of junk, tat and the unique that is the market – not merely the municipal market but the flea market, the farmers market, the concession store and the bazaar. When rents fall in town centres (and they will) these uses will flood into where we once had department stores and shoe shops.

The town centres that win will be those that embrace these changes not the ones who try to use regulation, planning or taxation to prevent the change. Some of them will be surprising places where local sensibility (and the WI) didn’t get in the way and where different uses were encouraged. Various folk have been talking about this change, of the move from the workaday to the pleasurable, of town centres as stages for events – from the birthday celebration or the stag do to formal organised and promoted occasions, from the spontaneous celebration of a win at football to the Scouts St George’s Day Parade.

Town centres and local councils that try to manage this stage the wrong way – through outdoor drinking bans, herding people away from events or stopping busking and peddling – will find quickly that places with a more open attitude, prepared to tolerate a little more noise, late nights and fun, will get the footfall and the businesses that live off that footfall.

So perhaps the WI, rather than lobbying government, should set up stall in the town centre – sell some jam, play some music, hire a clown and contribute to making local centres lively again!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

aren't these the people who for years have been urging a boycott of Nestle products? So they're definately not pro-choice, rathera part of the ban-everything problem.