A Mark Twain obituary or a moment of exciting change to be seized upon - and, if so, how? That was the topic at a recent dinner we hosted. The guests included captains of the British retail industry, senior clients and politicians, notably Tessa Jowell, the Shadow Minister for the Olympics and London. The discussion was lively and at times heated. Clearly, the issues affecting the high street are at the top of the agenda for many.
The central tension was the perceived scale of the problem (described by the chairman of New Look as a "death spiral") and the scale of opportunity. The central paradigm at play is that of demand and supply, normally associated with the laws of the free-market economy. But perhaps the most relevant demand is that of the community it serves. What do the people want? The value of creating community spirit by serving the people versus the cost of social disintegration by allowing the high street to be dominated by estate agents. A lively collision.
There is no denying it: the British high street is in trouble. One in seven shops in the UK is currently boarded up, rising to one in four in the centres of Blackpool, Rotherham, Grimsby and Hull. Footfall is declining: down 10 per cent in the past three years. A quarter of the UK's high streets are failing, with another 11 per cent in difficulty.
This matters because the decline of the high street is not only an economic issue, but a cultural, social and possibly even moral one too. Online and out of town may be better places to shop, but say goodbye to the high street and you rip the heart out of thousands of communities across Britain. Not to mention the livelihoods of many people in those communities.
Against this almost universal picture of doom and gloom, Saatchi & Saatchi's research reveals an unexpected story of optimism. Over the past few months, we have been talking to young people from across Britain about their high street and the role that they want it to play in their lives. We chose this group, rather pejoratively known as Generation Y (Britons aged 16-29), because if the high street has a future, they are it. Numbering some 11.1 million people and with both a love of shopping and relatively healthy disposable incomes, they are the spenders and the shopkeepers of the future.
What we discovered was rather surprising - extremely high levels of both affection for and expectation of their high street. Online and out-of-town shopping play significant and valuable roles in their lives, but neither enjoy the special place in young people's hearts that their high street does.
While they are, without doubt, the digital natives of advertising folklore, they are not overly enamoured by online shopping. They do it, but it finds far greater favour among those who don't like to shop than the 77 per cent who love it. And while the ever-more glamorous out-of-town retail centres offer aspiration and theatre, they lack the individuality and identity that the high street provides.
The real issue is that, while young people still visit their high street (78 per cent in the past week), it is becoming little more than a transactional relationship, with 63 per cent saying they visit just to shop. What was once a deeply sociable experience is being progressively bled dry of its humanity and sense of community. Half of our respondents claimed that they had no pride in or connection to their high street, despite an overwhelming desire for this. The truth is that young people aren't walking away from the high street; the high street is failing them. While government at both the national and local level, as well as landlords, must take responsibility for this, the blame should also lie at the feet of the retailers that have made high-street shopping such an unrewarding experience. One that has been left trying to compete on price, range and convenience with online and out of town - battles the high street cannot win.
Young people in Britain desperately want their high street to be successful and they are clear about what needs to happen to ensure this. First, they yearn for social connection. The high street traditionally offered a place to socialise, gossip, share and interact with other people - after all, sociability was and should be the high street's killer app. And this isn't just about more coffee shops and nicer street furniture (though these are important). Sociability should be at the heart of the service offering of every high-street retailer connecting with customers at a human and personal level.
Second, they long for a high street that makes them proud. Many of their own ideas about achieving this come from a desire to see their high street tidied up and better-presented. However, many more are about ridding their locality of the generic and creating events and spaces that celebrate local identity. The lesson for retailers is that their high-street presence needs to respect the locality and enhance people's sense of local pride. No more identikit and faceless store formats parachuted into every high street in the land.
Third, and perhaps most important, they want opportunities to set up their own businesses. This group is deeply entrepreneurial. Forty-eight per cent of the people we talked to had thought about setting up their own business, and the place that they would prefer to do it was on their high street, not online. Given increased capacity on the high street and the enthusiasm of young people to set up shop, we should be encouraging a renaissance in retail entrepreneurialism in a country once dubbed a nation of shopkeepers.
A NEED FOR BELONGING
Overall, the picture is of a group that desperately want to love their high street but, for this to happen, it needs to become a place that is truly unique, full of surprises and capable of providing a real sense of belonging, identity and human connection. This is a job for retailers, landlords and local and national government working together. Carry on as we are, creating soulless, transactional experiences that are no match for the internet or out of town, and we will lose another generation from the high street.
The dinner conversation drew many conclusions. Perhaps most obvious, and most pertinent, is that the digital and real worlds are not necessarily on a collision course, but rather, when they play to their strengths, they can be mutually supportive, where everyone wins, including the communities.
There's a moral obligation for local government, and there is a fiscal opportunity for brand owners, to seize upon the win. When it comes to the high street, the future may in fact be bright.
Robert Senior is the chief executive, EMEA, at SSF Group