Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Pointless tears for a lost high street


Professor Sparks laments the emotional void left by the loss of Woolworths. He makes an important point, putting his finger on the way some retailers can create a sense of attachment that’s more sentimental than economic. But of course sentiment doesn’t pay the bills.

Do you feel an emotional void as a result of Woolworths closing? If you do then your levels of emotional sensitivity are far more developed than those of normal people. Now I understand how marketing and advertising - the presence of a brand over the years - can create attachment. Indeed, as a professional marketer I can respond with a smile of quiet satisfaction at the way in which branding sustained Woolworths as a business long beyond the point where it lost its way as a retailer. But emotion at the demise of a shop few of us visited more than a couple of times a year?

Let's weep for the high street, let's mourn the loss of those shops we cherished in our now forgotten youth. We should wipe away a tear knowing that the greengrocer who always called you "John" has gone, that there are so few bakers and that the comfortable retail brands of yesteryear are now just memories.

We should post pictures of our towns in those glory days when we had, we're told, some 'attachment' to the high street. And have long conversations while hunched over these snaps, remembering past ages and regretting the loss of these past institutions.

Show that emotion, call down a curse on the shops that have filled the void left by those old shops. The second hand shops, dens of evil gambling and places where all that's for sale is the false hope of an easy (but expensive loan) - cry out about:

...predators in Food Bank Britain, leeching on a society that struggles to make ends meet and ensuring their users pay over the odds to survive.

But let's not see that remembered past as a guide to some golden future for the high street, let's not pretend that emotion can ever substitute hard reality. Not the reality of poverty - there is less poverty today than there was when those black and white photographs were taken, when people trudged in worn out shoes, back aching to the high street to haggle and hassle for the things a family needed to survive. No it is the reality that our wealth has brought choice, mobility, opportunity and, in doing so, has left those retailers behind. All the tears of happy memory will not change this fact.

Yet people like Julian Dobson persist in painting this myth:

This is why the future of such high streets lies in a very different approach to prosperity. Instead of desperately competing for the spending from enclaves of affluence, high streets need to return economic value to local entrepreneurs and shoppers. This demands access to property at low rent and with business rates set at intelligent levels; it requires active encouragement of local enterprise by councils and chambers of commerce; and it requires community-based networks of trade and exchange that rebuild local loyalty.

Don't get me wrong, I'm with Julian on the tax thing - all taxes do is make business harder. But the pretence that somehow affluence is fading from places like Rochdale, that poverty and the food bank is somehow the norm of living in these northern towns is a distorted, even insulting, picture.

However, the shoppers in Rochdale, in Littleborough and in Middleton, they're on the tram into Manchester or fighting the traffic round the M60 to the Trafford Centre. Or indeed, and this is ever more the case, sat in their onesie on the sofa, smartphone or iPad in hand buying stuff on-line.

There is a future for the high street, not as a dystopic place filled with betting shops and fried chicken takeaways but as a place for leisure and pleasure. This isn't about some form of local protectionism, an impost on prices that further excludes the poorest, but about getting the scale right and the place right. Above all it means fewer shops.

So wipe away the tears, they serve no purpose beyond the memory that invokes them. Instead recognise the reality of 21st century retailing - on-line provides a scale of choice never before available to the consumer. It drives down prices and brings the world's goods to our sofa. Just as there were once 50 shops in Cullingworth (there are now fewer than 15 and four of these are hairdressers), there will be no future need to struggle with heavy bags to that high street of people's memories to face less choice and higher prices than we get either on-line or in the supermarket.

These tears for a lost high street are pointless.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the end this is a quantification question we'll never be able to answer. Is the decline of high street hubs (and don't forget pubs) making people happier or sadder? Obviously because we've only just started to try and measure such things we won't know much about the answer but it is likely to be linked to generational expectations.

The declining high street and the closure of pubs to meet people in makes me unhappy (as I perceive it) but then I've counterbalanced it by moving to London where the population means hubs of commerce and an abundance of good pubs still exist.