Margareta Pagano: Look to the past for high street's future

Margareta Pagano
Saturday 22 June 2013 19:51

British shoppers are a fickle bunch. We moan ad nauseam about the high street's death yet as a nation we are the world's most avid online shoppers. As latest sales showed, online is booming.

At this rate, more than a fifth of all shopping in the UK will be done over the internet in five years' time. Our retailers are also the most creative in the world. Companies such as Asos and John Lewis are breaking new ground online all the time.

So while jobs are being lost on the High Street, new jobs and services are springing up elsewhere – the techies, the van drivers who deliver the parcels, the men and women running the distribution centres and the postal services.

Yet if this innovation continues, the Centre for Retail Research forecasts that another 400,000 jobs will be lost, at least 50,000 shops will close over the next five years and our pension funds will be hit as commercial property prices slump because of all the vacant premises.

So it's good to see someone like Bill Grimsey, the former Iceland retailer, decide independently to see what can be done to prevent the high street vanishing. The Government's celebrity choice of Mary Portas was always just a gimmick.

Grimsey, with his team of experts, is going to report back in the autumn with fresh ideas.

But, to avoid this being yet another wasted exercise, it's important that he looks carefully again at how we might bring commerce – and life – back into our high streets.

If so much shopping is now online or out of town, the big question is why do we go into a town centre? Well, here's a quick list: haircuts, pedicures, key-cutting, shoe repairs, drugs and cosmetics at the chemists, eating and drinking with friends, looking at paintings, watching concerts or films.

Then there's lifestyle and 'browsing' shopping; Apple's showrooms are a prime example of how browsing can be a pleasure. As more and more people, male and young, use mobile apps to price and compare, shops will have to become more like Apple. So shops are not dead, just changing. And that surely can only be for the good.

Most of our high streets have become deadly dull, cloned places where the independent shopkeepers have been priced out of the market by big chains, greedy landlords and even greedier local councils, which charge excessive rates and car parking.

They must take the blame for many of the problem. Take my local town, Saffron Walden in Essex, where the rent and rates for even the tiniest of shops is about £30,000 a year. That's a lot of coffee, and café owners don't have the advantage of Starbucks-style tax avoidance.

It's no surprise that charity shops are opening as fast as the independents are closing. Yet shopkeepers are being creative, too. The local lighting shop doubles up as an art gallery, a craft shop gives sewing classes, markets are growing while travelling French, Spanish and Italian traders with their cheeses and oils are becoming commonplace – just as they were hundreds of years ago.

If councils were clever, they would loosen restrictions so that more people could work and live in town, as they did in medieval times when craftsmen lived above their workshops. The CRR reckons 20,000 new homes could be brought into town centres if only councils would relax planning laws.

Let's take a leaf out of Nassim Taleb's latest book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. Taleb shows how we are increasingly using technology to reverse technology.

Shoemakers have spent decades crafting the perfect running shoe but now they are making five-fingered shoes that replicate being barefoot.

More bicycles are being made than ever, and cities are pushing bike use, while the iPad is merely an update on a Phoenician tablet.

It's the same with shopping and our leisure time. So it's simple: a freeze, if not reduction, in business rates, controls on landlords, cap or scrap car parking fees, more homes, more doctors' surgeries, more workshops, schools, job centres and crèches. Back to the future.

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