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Much of the recent commentary around how to revive the UK High Street has centred on a requirement for it to provide a mix of retail (both national and independent stores), food and beverage, entertainment, community hubs, healthcare and other service provision, as well as homes. In other words, shopping spaces need to provide a social function, as well as delivering commercial or transactional benefits.
These views are strongly supported by the fact that some of the towns and cities that have successfully reversed the national decline of our High Streets over the past few years have done so by developing community-based and socially-driven models. Great examples such as “Bishy Road” in York or Graham Soult’s work with Chester-le-Street’s town centre and the success of Belper have seen the local retail landscape thrive in otherwise challenging times.
However, this concept is nothing new. This social function of shopping has been around for much longer than many might imagine, compared with ‘transactional retail’ which is less than a century old.
Retail markets have existed since ancient times with archaeological evidence for trade, probably involving barter systems, dating back more than 10,000 years. In the UK, public trading spaces in the centre of towns and cities only really evolved during the 17th century, with a wide range of products on sales from a range of merchants and so providing an ‘experience’ or sense of discovery for the shopper. The rise of the middle class in Victorian England during the 19th Century created an even more favourable attitude to shopping and consumption, and High Streets became the places to see and be seen – places for recreational shopping and promenading.
In the second half of the 20th Century, with a post war boom in car ownership, the ‘traditional’ British High Street came under pressure from new large, out-of-town retail parks and then, towards the very end of the 20th Century, ‘bricks and mortar retailers’ wherever they were located, faced the new competitive threat of online retailers operating in a global marketplace – arguably the ultimate ‘transactional’ retail model.
As a result, physical spaces where people shop have now had to evolve – often with smaller retail units, including independent and pop-up stores – many providing local produce and more social spaces, offering food and beverages, as well as leisure, entertainment and community facilities.
The UK retail sector faces huge societal, economic and technological change, but evidence suggests that the social role played by shopping will increase in importance once again and those towns and cities which reflect this in their retail offering will not only survive but thrive. So, despite many suggesting that shopping in physical stores is a thing of the past and that the UK high street will soon disappear, neither is true – shopping is simply returning to its social roots.
You can read more of Nelson’s retail reflections in his blog, ‘Retail Views and News’.