Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Saturday 29 November 2014

So this is what the High Street of the future might look like

I got a glimpse the other day, and it’s not so very bad.

When I was a kid, my local high street never seemed to change. There was a range of shops that seemed to have been there forever. It included national chain stores, independents and one or two bigger local shops, often privately owned. Our local department store was a family run affair called Chiesmans. The company owned a total of nine stores, bought by House of Fraser in 1976. 

When I was growing up, every high street had a Woolworths and a Marks and Spencer, but every high street was also unique, because each had its array of local independent traders. When I was raising my kids, things were very different. By then, it was unusual to find family owned shops on the high street, and every high street in every town looked alike.

Next opened in 1982, The Body Shop opened its doors in the UK in 1976, Top Shop opened in 1973, the first Gap store opened in the UK in 1987, River Island opened its doors in 1993, Oasis opened in 1991. New Look has been around since 1969, but was floated on the stock exchange in 1998, and the first Primark store opened in the UK in 1973. Now they’re everywhere! Where on the high street is a girl to go if she wants something different? I took the girl-thing as an example, but this applies pretty well across the board, down every high street and in every shopping complex.

Karen Millen opened her first store in Maidstone in 1983, when it was still possible to be an independent retailer among corporate giants. I know because I shopped in that first store when Karen was designing and making everything. I still have one of her early shirts. I’m personally very happy that she was successful, but she sold to Mosaic in 2004, and the rest is history.

I talked about choice in my snark about kitchens not very long ago.

But, it seems to me that we’ve been in a transitional period.
A photo of my local High Street taken in the mid '80s by Roger Cornfoot
(his copyright) reused under Creative Commons License

The high street became very dull for a couple of decades. Everything became corporate and anonymous. The independents were pushed to the edges of our towns, away from the high street, where they were difficult to find, and where their earning potential and the opportunity for expansion was limited. It comes as no surprise that many of them went to the wall.

Then, along came the internet.

Of course, the big corporations took hold of the internet, too. Amazon, people! But we all shop on the web, we winkle out what we’re looking for, anywhere in the World. We find people making the things we want and we buy them. Some of those people are craftsmen and artisans, and some of those people are keeping their overheads low. They couldn’t afford to set up shop anywhere, let alone on their local high street. And, if they could afford to set up shop on their local high street, their wares are too specialist to attract enough custom, locally, to keep them afloat for long.

The internet is a good thing for them and the people who want to buy from them. It’s a good thing, too, for people who want to buy standard, generic items cheaply. If you want to buy from a warehouse, and cut out expensive display space, like, you know, shops, that’s great. The buyer gets a discounted price.

Our high streets are going to change; they’re already changing. We’re going to shop less and for different things on the high street, and I saw evidence of that the other day. I saw three empty shops being refitted.

Two of those shops were being fitted out as eating places, and one was being fitted out as a hairdresser’s.

There have been times over the past five years when I’ve been quietly horrified by the change in use of some of the shops on my high street. There seem to be more and more mobile phone outlets and cheap jewelry places and fewer places to actually shop. The tide now appears to be turning. Several very good delis have opened recently, selling some pretty interesting food stuffs. Our local population is changing to include a very welcome influx of Europeans, bringing with them some of their preferred eating habits. They’ve been here long enough, now, to set up shop. I like it. 

There are also a couple of new shops for pre-owned and vintage stuff. One of them is particularly good. Anyone who’s really interested in buying wants to look at and handle these things. It’s hard to buy vintage and antique furniture and ephemera on-line, and browsing is all part of the fun.

There are also a couple of very good Asian nail bars on my local high street. You can’t get your nails done remotely, and you can’t get your hair cut on-line.

The last couple of years have seen the return to the high street of grocery stores, too, thank goodness. I don’t drive, so relied on the husband for most of the shopping. Now, I can pop to any of three small, local supermarkets, assuming that any of the delis have closed for the day.

If we’re getting what we want on-line and we’re saving money in the process, then we have time and disposable income for other things. I don’t think the high street has to die. I hope we’ll continue to spend our money there. I hope that we’ll be more creative and more adventurous on our high street of the future. We'll shop there, I'm sure, for perishable things and esoteric things, but for more services, too, for more of our leisure. Who knows, perhaps among the delis and the vintage stores, the nail bars, hairdressers and restaurants, we’ll find bespoke dressmakers and tailors, craftsmen of all kinds, artists, small theatre companies, and lots of other things to engage us. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it?

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