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The High Street Trumps the Internet

6th March 2013

ResPublica's Caroline Macfarland writes for The Information Daily

When HMV announced its move into administration earlier this year, it was interesting to watch and contrast the trends of public feeling displayed via national and social media. There was of course the wave of nostalgic, even patriotic pride as people lamented the decline of a British brand that brought back memories of some of their earliest consumer experiences. But alongside this more benevolent disappointment there was also a great deal of scorn: at fellow consumers for overlooking the consequences of their own actions (“If you have ever downloaded music or streamed videos then you are partly to blame for HMV’s demise”), and at the high street chain itself for failing to modernise, meet the expectations and adapt to the behaviour of its customers.

So is the case of HMV symptomatic of not only a wider trend for the high street but a wider sentiment towards it? Will future generations (whilst browsing their one-click catalogues of online goods) look at pictures of boarded up shop fronts with a mixture of pity and derision for the dinosaur-like high streets that staggered into extinction?

To assess the future of the high street it is easy to be distracted by its former functions and purpose. What was the high street 50 years ago? It was the first point of call for the local community’s commerce needs. But the very nature of ‘community’ itself is changing. It no longer necessarily means neighbourhood – in an increasingly fast paced and digitised world can also be based on shared interests. And due to the trend of increasing office hours, where someone lives today may not be where they shop.

These are facts, but they are just as much opportunities as they are reasons for decline. The decreasing visibility of traditional neighbourhood hubs such as libraries, churches and pubs has left a gap for civic association and social focal points. Analysis commissioned by the official inquiry into the August 2011 riots found that 71% of the disturbances were in areas ranked the worst 10% for social cohesion. ‘Social cohesion’ is shown to be vastly improved by members of the community mixing, meeting or just passing-by on a casual basis – building resilience against civil disorder and improve wellbeing. And statistics aside, the reality is that no one wants a society that communicates via video-app behind closed doors. There is a very clear gap in terms of neighbourhood need for shared spaces for social purposes.

In the battle of ‘bricks vs. clicks’, the high street is no longer the place to frequent out of necessity, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be the place to go out of choice. The key question is how attract this choice. Too often people are seen solely as individual consumers rather than members and participants of their social groupings. People are more than “enter-browse-pay-leave” transactions. Social groups need to become central to town centre policy and be drawn into conversations and decisions on a similar footing to local businesses.

With this in mind there needs to be far greater innovation: Why are there a range of iPhone apps to help locate the nearest restaurants and hairdressers, whereas information about local sports clubs or social groups (book clubs, knitting circles) is spread across numerous different websites and media platforms? This is not just about technology, it is about behaviour and expectation. For the modern consumer, life is made easy. It is life as a social animal that is lagging behind.

High streets are so much more than places to shop – and this recognition is the key to revitalisation. Rather than commercial premises high streets should be seen as shared spaces for the community – this may translate into policies about the ‘meanwhile use’ of empty properties by community groups, or indeed the ‘moonlighting’ of spaces already in use (an IT workshop run in the estate agents after hours, or a craft fair in the pub beer garden for example). The high street need not be confined to private ownership, but could be opened up further to community trusts, social enterprises and local mutuals – viability does not need to mean huge profit margins. Local authorities have a key role to play here but more important is the recognition from businesses (retailers and others), social and community groups and residents, that a level playing field is a diverse one.

High streets should make the most of what they have that the internet cannot provide. You can’t experience the ambience of a coffee shop, have your nails done, or choose the toy that has captivated your young child online. It is the social and the experiential that high streets need to capitalise upon. People extend their musical preferences not by hopping from headphone to headphone at the CD store, but via exposure at the gym or out dancing. Does that mean that HMV should have adapted to consumer behaviours by hosting fitness classes or social events in their stores? It’s not as silly as it sounds.

The Information Daily Article

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