The high street isn’t dead; Dan Thompson at Townstock

The High Street is dead.

I know because Mary Portas has told us – she says ‘The days of a high street populated simply by independent butchers, bakers and candlestick makers are over’, and she also says ‘The fact is that the major supermarkets and malls have delivered highly convenient, needs-based retailing, which serves today’s consumers well.’ Just note there – consumers, she says, consumers – not citizens, residents or people. But in any case is that true? Are the days of the independent gone and do supermarkets and malls serve us well?

Well, Mary – Tony Benn once said ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?’ Who gave you the power to tell us the high street is dead? In whose interests is that? Who wants us to believe that?

The out of town shopping centres; because if the high street is dead, they are the alternative. The big internet companies: because if the high street is dead, they are the alternative. The supermarkets, because if the high street is dead, they are the alternative.

The banks, because if the high street is dead, it’s not their fault and we’ll have to bail them out. Again. The local authorities, because if they high street is dead, it’s not their fault and we’ll have to bail them out too. The town centre managers, because if the high street is dead, it’s not their fault and we’ll have to pay them to fix it.

But – if it’s dead how do we explain Bill’s Produce – which has gone from Lewes to open in Brighton, Cardiff, Covent Garden, Exeter, Islington, Reading, Richmond, Soho and Wimbledon? Or the Toy Barnhaus – started by ex-Woolworth’s staff and kitted out with ex-Wooolworth’s shopfittings and now with stores in Crawley, Croydon, Epsom, Redhill and Worthing? Or Bert’s Homestores in Brighton – which looks very much like the next Habitat. Or Bierhuis in Osset, one day a stationery store, the next selling beer from around the world? Or Apple, opening over 30 stores a year?

These are just a handful of examples of traditional bricks and mortar traders doing well in the recession.

In 2011 – there were 2,500 more independent shops opened than were closed down.

So – let’s assume that the high street isn’t dead even if some people would like us to assume it is. If it isn’t dead, then we are playing a whole, different game.

We’re looking at new, profitable, and sustainable businesses with real jobs and proper careers.

Oh – and retail as a career? When you were at school, did your careers advisor mention that? UK retail sales are around £300bn, the 3rd largest in the world, after the USA and Japan. The retail sector generates 8% of the GDP of the UK. The retail industry employs around 3m people. One in ten of those in employment currently work in the retail sector – the highest proportion of UK private sector employment. There are still 450,000 shops in the UK.

And – a mid-size Sainsbury store manager earns £60-65,000 a year – the larger stores, £90,000. And a bonus of 50%-75%. £157,500 a year, and a car, and healthcare. David Cameron is on £142,500. So – retail is serious business.

And pop ups are part of the mix of a successful high street. Like Ernie, from Sesame Street, said ‘There’re so many strange places I’d like to be/ but none of them permanently’

Pop us are nothing new; the fireworks shop, the Christmas craft market, and even seaside shops which open for the summer season – and explain why seaside towns like Margate have a surplus of shops.

Pop ups are especially useful right now for the researching, testing, prototyping what comes next: “Only a fool will build in defiance of the past. What is new and significant must always be grafted to the old roots, which are chosen with great care from the ones that merely survive. And what a slow and delicate process it is to distinguish radical vitality from the wastes of mere survival. But that is the only way to achieve progress instead of disaster”

And as part of that – failure is an acceptable outcome. Pop ups are agile, fast, and affordable and they make failure a possibility. Becket said ‘Try again, fail again, fail better’. John Ruskin said ‘Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; [do not] let your effort be shortened for fear of failure’

Pop ups are also important social objects. They’re the point at which we come together, as communities. That coming together means the impact of pop ups is bigger than the thing they actually do. Whatever the pop up does – café or cinema or community centre, market place or music store, greengrocer or art gallery – they’re places to build social capital. They’re places where relationships matter.

Much like the old high street, before the clone towns.

Pop ups aren’t big building projects – they’re not – to quote Jane Jacobs quoting someone else – ‘the doctrine of salvation by brick’. They’re about people. Pop ups need people to start with, not buildings – they need you. You will need – more than anything – to commit.

Goethe was another artist, and a revolutionary, and he said, “Up until the point we commit, we dance about the edges and we deny providence the ability to add to our own actions. But the moment we do, something happens.
People and happenings swing into action on our behalf, simply due to the act of commitment. If there is anything you want to do or dream you can, commit. Commitment has boldness, magic and power within it. Do it now.”

That’s the only thing that will make a difference to town centres. The only thing that will challenge the ‘the high street is dead’ orthodoxy. The only thing that will mean your pop up actually opens. Commitment to action.

Gerrard Winstanley said ‘my mind was not at rest, because nothing was acted, and thoughts ran into me, that words and writings were all nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing.’ So please, Townstock – act.

 Dan Thompson is the founder of the Empty Shops Network and the author of Pop Up Business For Dummies. This speech was given at Townstock, a two day event which brought together community projects and independent retailers, high street brands like Morrisons and Boots, council leaders and national organisations like the Community Development Foundation and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies.

5 responses to “The high street isn’t dead; Dan Thompson at Townstock

  1. Beautifully written, I particularly love the reference to Benn. Excellent perspective and challenge to the empty claims about an ailing high street. I think it’s an evolving high street to answer / respond to a consumer (citizen) revolution that happened in answer to eroded trust in big brands & banks, in answer to an unprecedented technology shift and in answer to despise of clone towns.
    Thanks for sharing Dan ;D

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