My story with Dave, the kids, Cooper, VW's & rugby

The Future of the High Street

So in the last week we have seen three old high street retailers finally admit defeat and land themselves into administration (Comet, Jessops and HMV … Added 16th Jan – Blockbusters now too) leaving huge debts behind them and a flurry of job losses. The question that has been banded around for many years keeps raising its head as to what will become of the high street in years to come?

The first thing that needs to be addressed is why are the retailers failing… and could they have done something to stop their demise? At the end of the day the world moves on and as a business you need to keep ahead of the changes that come about and evolve to meet the market’s needs. Did these retailers do this… well obviously not but was there much they could do about it?

A lot gets blamed on the “internet” but people’s shopping habits and their spending power has changed over the last 4 – 5 years and this is where shops on the high street needed to change too. The old boss of HMV was reported to say many years ago that downloading music was “just a fad” but how far wrong was he, and how he would wish now that he was a leader at the forefront of grasping the new technology. When we went into HMV at the weekend there was so much stock of DVD’s and CD’s selling for next to nothing but lots of old titles that are readily available on Sky Movies or free to download from iTunes.

Jessops declined due to the rise of camera phones and how we have abandoned the need for a separate digital camera and we now use our phones so much more. This is a similar progression with cameras as what happened when digital cameras dived onto the market and suddenly no one was buying camera film. Comet certainly faced additional competition from the internet especially when it comes to a company’s overhead of having to maintain a high street store compared to just a website and a warehouse, and people are able to become more price aware. They should have offered a higher level of service and value to make people want to remain loyal to their brand.

I still believe that customers remain loyal to stores if the quality remains high, and the level of customer service in the stores remains the key. Sometimes it’s a much better shopping experience to go online, to a well designed site, with good choice and an easy checkout process than to go to a shop where there are miserable shop assistants whiling away their shift. I buy an awful lot online, but that’s the industry I’m in and find that I can’t get the choice from the high street, and with only a limited amount of spare time I can’t be doing with trailing round the shops to find something. Three or four clicks and I could get exactly what I wanted delivered the next day, at a really competitive price. The only things I would tend to buy from a shop would be expensive, large items and this has comprised in the last few months of a dining table and a new superking bed, but everything else I have to say is online.

So what will be on the high streets in years to come?

I live and work in Ripon in North Yorkshire, which is a City in its own right since we have a very old Cathedral, but it is typical of a market town. We have a market square with an impressive obelisk in the middle, surrounded by retail units with shopping streets leading off from the centre. We do have empty shops as every town has, but we still have new businesses opening which is hopeful. My thoughts for the future of Ripon is that over time the centre around the market square will be more residential with upmarket flats, alongside trendy cafes and bars. There will be more seating and community focused areas, maybe even a grassy park where the market place is and more pedestrianisation. On the outer streets this is where you will get the services and businesses that still need to be on the high street. If you are a hairdresser / barber you’re in the perfect industry..people will always need their hair cut. You’ll have the banks (even though many do online banking you still need to go into a branch), the estate agents (even though online sites are thriving you still need the agents), key cutting / shoe repair shops, chemists (as there will always need to be a way to get prescriptions and toiletries quickly), cafes, bars, restaurants, bakeries, sandwich shops, solicitors (unless they can ever go paperless), charity shops, beauty salons, dry cleaners….err anything else? Maybe there would be a resurgence of the green grocers and butchers as people become more “ethical” and sway away from the supermarkets….that would be good.

One unique store that we have in Ripon is HandPickedHall which is situated in the building that was Philip Halls which was a small department store. Today the owner is leasing store space from as little as £10 a day to small businesses who want to get a start on the high street. With a number of retailers all under one roof you get a market feel to the premises where people can browse and shop and it becomes more of a shopping experience, and each trader can sell their products without the huge overheads of having your own premises.

One thing is for certain the economy will continue to evolve and it’s not good enough in this fast changing world to carry on as you always have done if you have a retail store. You need to be thinking of how to keep customers loyal but also how to offer what customers want. Should high street shops, or independent high street retailers offer the ability to have products delivered by having a solid web presence too, or in the very least suggesting that their customers who make a purchase join a loyalty scheme or at least collect their email address so that you can send them regular newsletters or offers to keep customers regular. Or finding out from existing customers what would make their shopping experience better or finding out what else can be offered.

It will be an interesting few years as more big retailers fail, as everyone needs to step up their game.

Added 17/1/13 – Just something to add after a productive shopping experience in Ripon yesterday. We headed to the Post Office to return a jacket that I’d bought from Ness Online that was too big, so its going back to be exchanged for a smaller size, and decided to have a quick pop into Benson’s which is next door. Benson’s has been in Ripon forever and its a great hardware shop where you can pretty much find anything, but a few years ago they evolved which was probably one of the main reasons why they are still on the high street today. They transformed the upstairs of the shop into a den of Barbour, Hunter, Joules and all the high priced clothing that is essential wear for upmarket set around this area 🙂 With us just popping in to have a look around we ended up spending nearly £100 on a warm fleece Barbour jacket liner for me, which came with extra discount, and then a 100 year anniversary Stanley thermos flask will would fit well in Mollie the Samba. This just shows how old high street businesses can evolve to capture a new market.


  • Elaine

    Our high street is appalling with so many shops empty and the majority of those that are occupied catering to the Pound Shops and Cheap Bargains brigade. It is not a pleasant shopping experience at all.
    And yet the council is spending millions regenerating the sea front, which will be brilliant when it’s finished but don’t appear to be actively encouraging new business for the high street.
    They should visit Yarm or Northallerton, which have a good mix of high end fashion shops, affordable boutiques, browsable second hand shops and comtemporary furnishings shops plus great cafes and restaurants – a pleasure to visit.
    Maybe I should stand for the council – if only I had the time .

  • M Lehan

    err yes! Ripon has one of the biggest toy shops in North Yorks. As a mum I thought you might mention that or do you buy for your boys online?

  • Becky

    Thanks M for your comment. Yes Ripon does have a great toy shop that I have used for many years, but the internet certainly is stiff competition for the toy market too. Really the shops on the high street will be left as emergency purchase shops, service outlets or luxury brands maybe … just my opinion of the future though, not that I am happy with how its all heading. My kids are pretty much out of toys, its all ipads, laptops, xbox really .. and then they’re outside on their scooters or playing football or rugby.

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  • Dom Hodgson

    Jessops – Fantastic staff knowledge but £35 for a 2gig SD card was not sustainable

    Comet – Not sure about that one to be honest, it’s the place we went to buy a fridge and related items

    HMV – When you sell a blueray at £25 and amazon has it with free delivery at £8, of course your going to have problems. I always thought they should have years ago came up with a digital store in store, a station where you can plugin your USB stick or mp3 player and buy an album instore to play… I’m not saying it would have saved the company but I just like the idea

    Blockbuster – I still think blockbuster should have gone the netflix route, a monthly fee for all you can watch dvd’s, have a limit on the amount of ‘new’ dvds you can borrow but £5 for three nights these days wasn’t sustainable.

    I do worry about the highstreet, Leeds is opening up two more large shopping centres in the next few years while the core, the market, clarence dock and half the merrion centre looks empty, As someone who has tried to open a shop in most of these places, the rents charged are astronomical, no negotiation no deals, We were quoted 3,500 a month (not including rates) for a small small inside an empty shopping centre.

    I’m told the reason for the high rates is that most of these buildings are tied into pensions and they are still working to the fact that ‘this recession is all going to blow over’ and in a few years they can go back to charging silly money. They would rather it be empty now for 3-4 years than to possibly lower the value of the building by lowering rents.

  • Dan Thornton

    Completely agree. I just received my latest Amazon order, for products I couldn’t find in the main London shops, let alone in my local stores. The choice between instantly downloading or streaming, rather than heading into town, sitting in traffic, paying for parking and then not finding what I want is an easy one.

    At the same time, I’ll drive 20 minutes out of my way to visit a local farmshop – it has a fantastic selection, great staff and the price is reasonably competitive.

    It’s ironic that all the talk for online eCommerce is around building communities, when the offline High Street stores have the perfect opportunity and rarely bother.

  • judith hunt

    well that blog has produced a good response and I know that retailers have to keep up with the times but surely if you are in a tourist area, the retail outlets have to keep up with the times, there is no excuse,as they have good footfall passing their door. Good old Bensons if you want anything..treasure trove of goodies!!!