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The High Street must evolve to survive, says Bury St Edmunds columnist Nicola Miller

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The press is filled with reports about the death of the High Street. This newspaper recently launched its ‘Love Local’ campaign highlighting the benefits of spending cash in the town and whilst I support this wholeheartedly, we must beware of treating the High Street as a mystical entity with an ability to prevail, independent of humankind and its many whims.

We’ve changed and the High Street reflects this: our shopping habits reflect societal patterns so why are we expecting the High Street to be the living embodiment of something from the past? We are not those people anymore.

From the earlier ‘shop in the front, living space in the back’ arrangement (Roman stores had accommodation) to the emergence of what we today would recognise as a ‘High Street’ from the 1700s onwards; the placing of shopping malls either small-scale and town-based (Cornhill Walk) or edge-of-conurbation (Brent Cross); the relatively recent retail parks sited miles out of town, and now, online shopping serviced by enormous storage hubs, these developments did not evolve isolated from human need and want.

Nicola Miller. (7645295)
Nicola Miller. (7645295)

So what do we want now? Clearly, the bottom line drives much of sales: there’s the gospel of the best (cheapest) deal which, in the age of an austerity narrative ruthlessly – and needlessly – driven by the Tories, has done much to damage the communities whose own modest incomes are spent in the local economy. There’s the ease and convenience of online shopping, too.As Toby Moses said in the Guardian: “The convenience of buying a jumper while sat on the sofa in your pants isn’t going to be beaten by a more pleasant in-store ‘customer journey’.”

Most local shops are closed by 6pm. This isn’t particularly useful for working people who don’t want to spend their days off shopping. The old argument that online shopping cannot match the customer service of the High Street is not necessarily true if what people want is more choice, more convenience and less ‘noise’: music, cluttered displays, bright lights, and low stock can make shopping in many stores quite draining. Might the famed service of the high street hold little apparent value any more?

But does online shopping have to be the enemy of the High Street? Much depends on whether you believe the only value the High Street has is a commercial, fiscal one. The social benefits of a busy town centre are clearly worth pursuing and back in September 2018, eBay UK and the city council of Wolverhampton partnered up in an innovative scheme designed to enable small, independent retailers to get online. Offering support in the skills required to develop and maintain a successful online business alongside physical sales, within three months reported sales approached £1 million with an average sales increase of 41 per cent across the 182 participating businesses. “Shoppers increasingly want the value and convenience of online, alongside a physical experience that enables them to try before they buy and to shop local. Local businesses benefit from a shop window to millions of consumers worldwide using online platforms like eBay that don’t undercut sellers,” said Cllr Roger Lawrence, leader of City of Wolverhampton council. In this way, the internet can be used to support local retail communities instead of hollowing them out. As BFP Editor Barry Peters wrote: “Research shows that £10 spent with a local independent shop means up to an additional £50 goes back into the local economy. That’s down to nearby shop owners putting that cash into the local economy themselves in the likes of pubs and clubs and this allows the local community to thrive even more.”

It is clear that there’s more than one community, and having an online retail presence is yet another way of developing roots in communities different from the physical one your business exists within. It is possible to develop relationships with the online businesses you shop with so, if you’re a local store, why not capitalise on this and grow your own internet presence? The attachments we form online are as complex as those we have with people in real life, and if you have reduced mobility or are weighed down with young kids, the internet is a game-changer; let’s not forget that trawling the local High Street has not always been an option open to everyone.

And there’s more change ahead: as transport infrastructures evolve, it may become less expensive to take an Uber and, by 2030, a shared hail-ride driverless EV service may have an enormous impact on how we plan and use urban spaces. Already in the USA, we are seeing that, potentially, 25 per cent of people could find ride-sharing apps cheaper than running a car.