Do high streets still need shops?

Sunday 18 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Frobisher Auditorium 2, Barbican Battle for our Cities

In recent years, traditional high street retailers have faced many problems: the economic downturn, higher property costs, competition from out-of-town and online retailers, red tape, parking charges and business rates. While big chains may have the resources to ride out these storms or consolidate operations, the pressure on independent retailers is often enormous. Moreover, this impacts areas of the country differently. While so-called ‘destination’ shopping areas like big city centres and shopping centres have bounced back well from the recession, for example, smaller high streets still have a worrying number of empty units. There are further concerns that the decline of their high streets could deprive smaller towns of a focus for the community.

One trend has been the rise of more innovative and quirky retailers, restaurants and coffee shops filling the empty spaces on the high street. The big supermarkets are also coming back, in the form of convenience stores that better suit younger people, who are less likely to have a car and prefer to shop more frequently. Even online shopping is merging with the high street through collection areas based in traditional shops that avoid the inconvenience and expense of missed deliveries.

Yet should our high streets really be based on shopping? This is an opportune moment to consider what our high streets are for. For example, should we wave farewell to the traditional high street parade of shops and place a greater emphasis on leisure and other services – places to meet and enjoy activities together? Perhaps technology could play a greater role, allowing high street stores to provide services for advice about products rather than actually stocking them, with speedy delivery from central stocks or wholesalers on demand, further blurring the distinction between online and offline shopping.

Yet it is not obvious how that decision will be made or who will make it. Should we simply let the market decide? Should government intervene to shape our high streets and at what level – national or local? Should we see business rates cut and greater encouragement for small, unique businesses that help us get away from ‘clone towns’ with the same retailers appearing everywhere - or do consumers in reality actually value easy access to big-chain stores? And how do the rest of us get a say - through the ballot box, a campaign group or our wallets?

Tom Ironside
director of business and regulation, British Retail Consortium

George MacDonald
executive editor, Retail Week

Eva Pascoe
chair, digital network Cybersalon; co-founder, Cyberia, world’s first internet café; co-author, An Alternative Future High Street for the UK minister for high streets

Susan Steed
economist and aspiring stand up comedian

Para Mullan
senior project manager, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; FCIPD

Produced by
Para Mullan senior project manager, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; FCIPD
Recommended readings
Popping up everywhere

Amid a great migration online, a few e-retailers open real-world outposts.

The Economist, 3 October 2015

From UK High Street to Networked High Street: Retail Technologies E. Pascoe and N. Gomez, CyberSalon, 1 August 2013

The Future of High Streets

Progress since the Portas Review

Department for Communities and Local Government, 1 July 2013

Time for some high-street innovation

Britain’s retail sector needs to stop worrying about the greens and learn to love new technology.

Margot Loudon and James Woudhuysen, spiked, 26 June 2013

Can We Save the Independent High Street? L. Mitchell, BusinessZONE, 18 January 2013

An Independent Review into the Future of our High Streets M. Portas,, An independent publication, 1 December 2011

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