Another retail expert is telling us the High Street is dead. Last year it was Westfield employee Mary Portas, this year it’s clone town retail executive Bill Grimsey. ‘The High Street is dead’ he says, promoting his book and launching another ‘independent’ report into the High Street.
The High Street is dead, he said on BBC Breakfast, and should be converted to housing and leisure uses. I can’t disagree that we need more diverse use, a better mix, and to bring back housing – Pop Up People was published in January 2012 with much the same findings. But there’s a difference; Bill Grimsey says retail has no place. It’s dead, killed by the internet. Young people will only want to shop online so in ten year’s time, there won’t be any shoppers, he reckons.
Which is odd because if you actually visit a town centre you’ll find it’s as full of teenagers as it ever was. Unsurprisingly, they don’t shop in the places that Bill Grimsey has run, the big box DIY chain Wickes for example. Those shops, based in the out-of-town developments and the shopping centres, not on the High Street, have closed in their thousands.
Working on the Retail Ready People project, it’s become obvious that young people are amongst the most passionate champions the High Street has. People under 30 get the purpose of the high street, seeing it as a social as well as a selling space. They want local shops, independents, doing something different – as well as the cheap chains like H&M and Primark. Young people mix and match their style, cheap Converse knock-offs with an expensive Jack Wills hoodie – and they mix and match uses in a shop too.
Talk to young people, give them an opportunity like they’ve had in the Retail Ready People programme or the Carnegie Trust’s Test Town competition, and you’ll be as optimistic as me about the future of our town centres. The clone town is dead, big box retail isn’t working, but the High Street is alive and getting younger.
Dan Thompson is the founder of the Empty Shops Network and author of Pop Up Business For Dummies. He devised the Retail Ready People project, giving young people a chance to test ideas on the high street.