Monday, 28 November 2011

We really don't like shopping do we? Thoughts on the future of town centres...

At the weekend there was consternation at the drop in high street footfall – it would appear that our retail civilization as we know it is collapsing.

Customer numbers fell 3.3pc last week compared with the same time a year ago, according to research undertaken by Experian Footfall and released to The Sunday Telegraph.

The numbers come after two months of almost uniformly poor data from the high street.

The high street is struggling – in some cases the struggle appears to be more or less terminal – yet we remain obsessed with retail as the principle purpose of the town centre. Here’s arch-guardianisto, Peter Preston:

At its root, shopping serves one crucial purpose: it defines communities. Your local shops are where you bump into friends, nip out to buy a toaster or pair of shoes, break up the routine of the day – a routine that is growing ever more tenuous as people spend their lives in front of a screen, stuck inside little office boxes or, increasingly, working from home. What happens when the shops die? Neighbourhoods lose reference points. Areas lose their identities. There's no throb of life to the place where you live. It becomes blank, anonymous, savourless.

This is arrant nonsense – I’m more likely to “bump into my friends” in the cafe or, you never know, in one of the few pubs that the management, the smoking ban and nannying fussbuckets haven’t yet closed. I could add a range of other social environments – the gym, the park, the school gates, the old people’s lunch club, the swimming pool, the bus stop.

Over the past ten years or so there has been a profound shift in our retail habits. The town centre with its expensive car parking, its dirty streets and its inconsistency has been replaced by the shopping mall, the retail park and the giant supermarket. Why is this if shopping is such a wonderful social experience?

The dark truth is that shopping is mostly something we need to do rather than something we want to do. Forget the ‘sex in the city’ imagery of retail therapy and think instead about feeding a family of five on a budget, of having to get the kids new shoes for school, of getting the broken door in the kitchen fixed and a whole host of essentially mundane tasks that make up most people’s retail experience.

We really don’t like shopping. We like having new stuff, we like good food, we like the children to be dressed in clothes with a minimum of holes and tears. But we don’t like the process of getting to that state. And we want to keep the cost down (most of us don’t have Peter Preston’s income) so our limited budget can stretch to some fun – going out for a meal, having a drink, a trip to the pictures and saving for the two week family holiday in Spain, Greece or Florida.

And now there’s a new threat (according to Peter Preston):

But now beware: there's a new kind of threat. That threat is stagnation out of town, and degradation in town. The vans I see day after day – busy delivering vegetables next door, groceries across the road, bringing books, clothes and fridges at the push of a button – are not lifelines but the harbingers of a colder, more lonesome world.

I saw a tweet the other day from someone – I forget who – saying they were surfing Amazon on their phone while in Westfield shopping centre. Which rather makes the point – right now, on-line retailing is cheaper, more convenient and (wait for it) time saving. So we’re buying on-line it and taking the time and money we save to do other things – having a good time doing something other than the tedious chore of shopping.

The idea that shopping is the acme of consumption has always been nonsense – it is the having and using of the stuff we buy that gives the pleasure not the process of obtaining that stuff. To put is simply, shopping is a precursor to consumption not consumption itself. If town centres are to recover then we need to ask more about what I call ‘leisure and pleasure’ and less about retail and commerce.

Think for a second about those places you return to again and again and ask why? Notice that there’s always ‘something on’ – it might be retail, a market of some sort maybe. It might be entertainment, perhaps music or dance? And it might be sport or art or food or drink - just a damn good party.

We are in a phase of denial about town centres – providing incentives to retailers to set up shop, slipping taxpayers’ cash into ‘regeneration’ schemes and saying that it’ll all be fine once the recession’s over and the sun shines again. It may work – I’m happy to be wrong about this – but my fear is that we’re simply filling the cracks in the dyke with tax money (or rather freshly minted notes from the central bank’s ‘quantitative easing’ programme) and in five years time we’ll still be wondering why the shops are closing and the high street is struggling.



Curmudgeon said...

Things must be getting desperate when even McDonald's quit Rochdale town centre.

WV = gents (another thing sadly lacking in so many town centres nowadays)

Leg-iron said...

All I can offer is one smoker's personal experience.

I used to visit the town often. Once I'd bought whatever I went there for, I'd call in at a cafe for a sandwich, coffee and a smoke and browse the shops.

Now I can't smoke in any cafe, pub or restaurant, there is no longer any reason to visit the town for pleasure. So I don't browse the shops either.

For this smoker at least,the town is no longer a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. These days I go there, buy what I went for, and leave. No browsing, no impulse buys. I don't even bother looking in shop windows any more.

I'm sure the antismokers are delighted that I spend as little time in their presence as possible, and they're welcome to their lovely traffic fumes.

They said they'd flock to the pubs when we smokers were banned, well now they can flock to the shops too.

This smoker has flocked off.

Woodsy42 said...

I used to enjoy occasional visits into town. Browse round the market and the bookshops, record shops etc, like LI said, maybe a coffee or cafe lunch out.
But towns are now actively visitor hostile. Road routes in are restricted and managed and very (deliberately?) conjested. All the informal parking is now residents only access while official parking is exorbitantly expensive. Anything you purchase has to be lugged half a mile back to a windswept car park - or past the muggers and pee smelling stairways of a multi storey where your car might still be as you left it.
Why would anyone bother?
It's quite obvious why out of town shopping is popular and now out of town areas have ranges of shops and banks - basically the councils have driven the entire commercial town centre out of town!