Some thoughts on the decline of the High Street as a retail hub.
|In most every town in Britain and I suspect pretty much everywhere else there is a 'High Street', (even if it is called something else in other countries). These streets long have been the focal point for a town's retail trade, indeed the term 'High Street' is synonymous with shopping. |
Since the tail-end of the 20th Century, these thoroughfares have seen a decline. Nowadays it is not uncommon to see news items about the declining number of shops, and the struggles of those that do remain to maintain relevance in modern society. These are my own musing on the reasons for this, and what it illustrates about how we live nowadays.
The supermarket has been held as much to blame for the serious decline in the power and importance of the high street. Once these were large stores, and themselves often placed on the main street of a town. Over time however they have grown, to warehouse sized edifices, and are usually situated on business parks. Situated on the outskirts of a town they favoured the increasing car ownership of the general public. This is a key point, when cars weren't as common, people naturally preferred to shop locally.
Supermarkets appealed because they offered convenience. 'No need to visit several shops, it's all here under one roof.' As car use increased, so streets became more dangerous to traverse. Parking charges became an issue, and supermarkets are almost always surrounded by large amounts of free parking. They also sold themselves as offering choice, but this was a lie. Once for example you could buy any number of different varieties of apples, or potatoes. Some supermarkets nowadays have just red or white potatoes, not even bothering to state what variety they are.
The reasons for this are fairly obvious. Despite their size each supermarket will only have so much shelf space. They want to fill that space with what sells most. This means the 'top brand' of crisps, but not the many also rans that could once be found in different shops and pubs.
As top brands increased their prices, perhaps as a direct result of their seeming stranglehold on supermarket shelves, we saw the emergence of the cut price supermarket. No-name brands sold considerably cheaper than the mainstream brands became more popular as people's wealth declined.
Supermarkets themselves are now feeling the impact of changing shopping habits. Accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Internet shopping is increasingly cutting into their markets. To combat this, most now offer free home deliveries. Some have even cut deals to sell through such companies as Amazon.
So shopping on the high street has become increasingly a thing of the past. The decline in the number of big name shops has had a particular impact. A street full of empty shop fronts is unappealing, and the few remaining shops struggle to attract sufficient footfall to survive. Specialist shops that offer something different from supermarket fare, for example comic books, or new age products become increasingly isolated, and potential customers increasingly likely to purchase online rather than make a special journey to shop in town.
It is not only shops that have disappeared from the high street though. Once public houses were dotted along each street. Since the year 2000, their numbers across the country have been declining by at least 20%, some 12,450 gone in the years 2000-2017 alone1. Lots of different factors are behind this, amongst them: the availability of cheaper alcohol in bulk packages from supermarkets and 'Bargain Booze' style outlets; huge televisions being relatively cheap, and meaning that potential punters can now enjoy 'the match' in the comfort of their own homes; the ban on smoking making pubs less popular for those who indulge this habit; less money available to spend on socializing in pubs, and the increased use of social media.
Banks are another 'casualty' of the declining high street, and here greed is very much the driving factor. Employing people is expensive, beyond their wages there are pension schemes and national insurance to pay. To increase profits, banks naturally look to reduce their workforce. The massive impact of computers, allowing software to do what thousands of people once did by hand has been furthered by the cashless society that is emerging. This is great news for banks.
The more that they can encourage us to use phone apps, and online banking, the easier the banks find it to claim that a high street presence is unnecessary. They will site that numbers of customers in the banks have declined, though those of us who use them regularly will not have seen this to be the case at all. Again Covid-19 has hastened the process of moving to a cashless society, in the shop that I work we now regularly have people expecting to make card payments, a couple of years ago we were asked if we had a machine once in a few months.
In the 1990's the government broke up the telephone monopoly of British Telecom. One of the more obvious effects of this was a massive mushrooming of the number of telephone kiosks in town centers, as competitors set up their own alongside the familiar 'red box'. These have already been swept away, by the widespread use of mobile phones. The few that remain are likely to have a sign on saying 'no one is using this box, so we are considering removing it'.
Utilities in general used to have outlets on the high street. You could go in and pay your gas, telephone or electricity bill, and buy related products. Now of course most of us pay online by direct debit. The outlets are gone.
I don't believe that the decline of high streets can or will be halted. They have had their day and unless society's mores change extraordinarily, any ongoing need for them seems slight. We have become physically more and more insular. Our social lives are online, our shopping is online, our entertainment is online. I think that shopping in general will continue to migrate to the Internet, and hopefully this may increase the diversity of what is available to us. Supermarkets will continue to exist for a while, but the decline of the high street seems terminal.
1. Source: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/last-orders-the-decline-of-pubs-around-the-...
Accessed 23rd September 2021.