The high street is in trouble, but marketers have the power to revive it
A view from Charles Astwood

The high street is in trouble, but marketers have the power to revive it

E-commerce could shut down half our high street stores - so it's time to redefine the town centre, writes ParcelHero's chief marketing officer.

UK shoppers’ weekly online spending has reached £1bn a week and as our recent report details, the death of the high street could be much nearer than people think. By 2030, just 13 years away, the impact of online shopping and home deliveries will mean over half of today’s town centre stores, with all their familiar brands, will be a memory. 

The number of familiar high street names being drowned by the growth of the internet shows no signs of abating: as Jaeger, Staples, Banana Republic and American Apparel join the ranks of the fallen, and M&S prepares to close 53 stores.

With the future looking bleak, one possible lifeline for the high street is the use of rebranding to move it away from a simple commercial offering and towards an experiential destination in the eyes of the consumer. A place not just to buy goods you need, but to spend enjoyable time, indulging yourself in complementary activities which you just can’t get online.

It’s time for the high street to fight back. And our report shows how town centre stores could use their friendly expertise to welcome back a generation of shoppers disillusioned with the impersonal world of e-commerce.

By 2030 our town centres – if they are to continue - must have a compelling reason for people to visit, starting with developing ever-more friendly local shops with knowledgeable staff.

If the high street can’t always compete on price, it can certainly win in terms of expertise and a more pleasurable retail experience.

There’s room for high street chains with a good USP, for indies galore, and perhaps even for a flourishing, adaptable, department store at the heart of every town centre.

The secret for the restoration of the fortunes of our traditional town centres is to go back to the future, to borrow a phrase from John Lewis property director Jeremy Collins. High streets must return to a Victorian model. Shopping should become a more social experience again.

But the entire concept needs to be resold to the British public, which has fallen in love with convenience over experience. John Lewis, for example is "going back to the future’ by including extra services in its shops such as beauty spas and opticians, mirroring the hairdressers it had in store 70 years ago.

But that’s not enough. Homes must also return to UK high streets to prevent no go areas after 6pm. Tomorrow’s town centre will have fewer shops and more houses, restaurants, convenience stores and places of entertainment: an infrastructure that has been lost in many towns.

And there are more compelling reasons why the high street of the future can be a desirable destination. Even on those streets that aren’t fully pedestrianised, vehicles will produce substantially less emissions by 2030, the anti-diesel bandwagon is already rolling, and hydrogen vehicles will move us closer to genuine zero emission transport.

Trucks and vans are likely to vanish from daytime city centre streets. Night time deliveries to retail outlets from urban freight hubs will likely take over from today’s huge HGV deliveries directly into stores.

And the high street will have to learn to adapt to the rise of e-commerce. This means technology will play an increasing role in what remains of our high streets. Autonomous vehicles and droids will likely be delivering into retail outlets and direct to town centre homes from these out of town distribution centres.

Entirely new methods of delivering items will also have a presence on our high street, such as 3D printing shops for producing items too large for domestic 3D printers that will be growing in popularity by 2030.

So our shopping streets can be a haven rather than a wasteland. But it is a vision that will need to be sold by high street brands – and multi-channel brands who value their town centre presence – speaking as one. By pooling vision and talent to spell out the attraction of the social shopping experience: visiting stores, comparing notes and having a coffee in a friendly, colourful and vibrant street.

And it’s not just consumers we have to convince; it’s landlords killing a business rather than lower their margins, its councils after every penny they can get from business rates, and planners reluctant to grant a change of use from retail to domestic. A lot of minds need to be changed to save the high street. Over to you.

Charles Astwood is chief marketing officer at ParcelHero.

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