The beleaguered UK High Street is in the news this morning. First there is poor old Thomas Cook, which has joined the ranks of retailers struggling for their very existence. Then there is the Mary Portas review, and her ideas for bringing life back to the High Street. But there was one three letter word beginning with an f that sits right at the beginning of her report, which just about says it all.
Before I reveal this f word, let me tell you about a report I read around 18 years ago. At the time I worked in what used to be called the home computer industry, and in the early 1990s the industry had become obsessed with online shopping. Back then, hardly anyone had heard of the Internet; even Bill Gates was busy betting against it, but there was a growing understanding that an online industry was set to emerge. The report I read predicted that the advent of online shopping would affect retailers in much the same way as if a bomb had been detonated on all High Streets across the country.
Well, almost two decades later and the virtual bomb hasn’t really exploded, but there is no doubt that online shopping is hitting the High Street hard.
For me, Thomas Cook is a case in point. I find the process of going into a travel agent so unsatisfactory these days. You see a wall of brochures plugging cruises. The sales rep, or travel advisors, or whatever you call them, seem to think everyone wants nothing more than to spend their summer on a crowded boat, playing bingo and spending a couple of hours at each stop.
My usual response, after a trip to a travel agent is to go on the Internet. With EasyJet/Ryanair, and Trip Advisor to help you choose a hotel, it feels easier, and cheaper.
The big problem with Thomas Cook is that its business model is looking increasingly irrelevant. It is surely a victim of the Internet.
And looking forward, do HMV, Waterstones, WH Smith, and any other retailer that sells products you can have far quicker and for less money on the Internet, have a future?
I like books, but Kindle/iPad types readers are the future. What’s the point of buying a DVD, when it will become increasingly easier to download a movie from iTunes?
Meanwhile, Internet stores, such as Apple, and even Amazon, have started looking at the High Street as a kind of branding exercise, designed to encourage you to buy more stuff from them online.
Amazon has even launched an app which enables you to go into a store, scan products for sale, and compare the prices with the same products from Amazon. It then offers a discount if you do buy the product from Amazon. (By the way watch Amazon, I think this company may be set to see growth accelerate sharply. It may even rival Apple for market cap within three years).
But the High Street can offer something that the Internet may never be able to offer; and that is proper person to person interaction.
I wonder whether these automatic tills that are popping up everywhere represent a bad move by the retailers. Sure they mean shorter queues, but they also remove one of the few advantages that old fashioned stores have. If you can go into a store, pay for your stuff automatically, without the need to talk to anyone, why not stay at home, and buy it online?
When the music industry promoted CDs, they shot themselves in the foot. A compact disc may be shiny, but it has no soul. There is no thrill to be gained from putting a CD in a music system, not like playing a vinyl record. But we migrated from vinyl to CDs, and when the Internet came along, there was very little reason to hang on to CDs. The move to automatic tills may be analogous to this.
The Portas report talked about bringing professional management to the High Street itself, planning rules favouring the High Street over out of town centres, and cheaper parking. There is a call for cheaper rents, and market days allowing would-be entrepreneurs to experiment.
But she said something else, and this is the key paragraph: “The focus is on putting the heart back into the centre of our High Streets, re-imagined as exciting social hubs for shopping, learning socialising and having fun.”
So what is this three letter word beginning with an f which I see as the key? Why it’s fun, of course.
High Streets have to be made fun. And the key to this lies in making the High Street a place for social interaction; somewhere you can go to meet your friends and make new ones. That means street theatre, and music, a place to look at art, and just meet up for a chat. And that means some really creative thinking.
These views and comments are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees