Clicks Cancel Mortar - Take a walk down your High Street

Can you speak about the megatrends affecting society and our industry?’ is a request I’ve received often. The answer is, ‘Yes, I can. But it’s much better if you discover these trends yourself.’

I worked out how while running 5 day leadership retreats. To capture peoples’ attention for that long, you had to keep it experiential. One task we designed was to send teams into the local town to really observe what was changing, what was growing and what was dying. Done well, a team could quickly identify its own version of the trends, creatively extrapolating from what their senses had told them, rather than their classroom brains. In a focussed conversation afterwards they could answer the challenge, ‘so what?’ Most groups came up with great ideas for tackling what the future - or the competition - were throwing at them.

“Certainly beats brainstorming!” is a comment I still remember from a CEO whose team attended.

But I don’t want to oversell past achievements – we all know  that what worked then, won’t do the trick now. I can’t imagine asking an audience on Zoom to switch off and go for a walk. Especially in a pandemic…


On Taking Your Own Medicine

We’re all advice - givers in some parts of our life. Whether to our friends, colleagues or children. Easy to dish out, harder to take your own counsel. Thinking this, I took a walk down my old main street, Cornmarket in Oxford, for the first time in a year. Although I’d heard from friends and the news what was happening to shopping streets- you don’t have to be a genius to know they are in trouble – the visceral experience of seeing it for myself was mood altering.

Boswells was Oxford’s only large independent store, selling everything from linens to luggage to medicines. Hard to imagine commercial success with so much space devoted to low margin haberdashery. Boarded windows and doorways testified to its inability to compete with the real Everything shop – with a capital ‘E’ – Amazon. Admittedly it was going to close its doors even before the pandemic, but it was still a shock to see its large main street premises in permanent lockdown.

Opposite is the even larger and grander site of another victim of shifts in retail behaviour, Debenhams, a national chain, also closed for business. A few doors down the once iconic GAP brand was holding its closing down sale- the whole business slated to survive only as an online store. And the lights had even gone out in the Cornmarket branch of Starbucks.

What’s replaced these famous outlets? Vape shops, barbers and cheap Oxford souvenir shops, as well as the staple of every UK centre, the inevitable mobile phone emporia. Many have not been replaced at all.


Everything Virtual

The first rule of digital transformation is that ‘anything that can be done online, will be.’ This includes many activities that might have been thought impossible to do at a distance: funerals, therapy, medical consultations, conferences, love affairs(!)…

The second rule is that: many people prefer it this way! It’s not surprising therefore that High Street retail is  threatened. The pandemic didn’t cause this – all that’s happened is a rapid acceleration of a wave of transformation that was already on its way.

It isn’t all down to Amazon either – there are other factors like a more modern shopping centre (with parking) arriving a few years ago. The UK’s primary obsession is not, counter to the stereotype, discussing the weather: parking comes first. In Oxford the council’s strategy has been to make the city almost inaccessible to the motorcar, so it’s hardly surprising that retail has collapsed. The desire to cut pollution is an admirable one, but as long as they allow the stupid rivalry of bus companies to continue, this good intention is undermined. (As are the foundations of historic buildings on Oxford’s famous High Street – I saw 14 buses at one glance, most with only a small handful of passengers.)

Shopping pundits talk about the ‘Reinvention of the high street,’ and doubtless it will come. In my home town the only ‘business’ flourishing seems to be the university’s Jesus College, which is building a monumental new block on Cornmarket, its vast cranes sitting on the pedestrian concourse and spreading dust and noise over the decaying avenue. It seems that while clicks are cancelling mortar, the same can’t be said for mortarboards!

Maybe it will all morph into residential facilities for the University, career centres for homeless shop-keepers and the unemployed or (sorely needed!) more coffee outlets? Or become upmarket residential quarters to ease the city’s housing shortage.


New Thinking Demanded

Whatever the solution, it will take some time, strong political will nationally and locally, as well as creative thinking that transcends the old solutions.

The satirical magazine, Private Eye, carried a cartoon a few years ago with pictures of two UK High Streets, challenging the reader to ‘spot the difference.’ The legend read that they were identical, and the insight could save you from having to travel 500 miles to see them!

I’m wondering if this is still so, and await reports from readers. Boarded up shops, the exodus to digital and a race to the bottom, quality-wise, is what I’ve observed. Let me know what your own eyes have seen, and the conclusions that leads you to, not just for the future of shopping, but what it indicates for employment, working practices and our expectations of a communal High Street experience -if we still have them or care.

I’ll save my own conclusions for a second piece – I look forward to hearing yours…

July 2021