Time to think differently about the future of retail

Ever noticed how news comes in waves – good follows bad, follows good, and so on. Only two years ago, we were all talking about the amazing future of the store; then we decided it was all over for the store, and that’s kind of where we are now – talking about how the high street should consider a future without depending on retail.

The problem with talking in absolutes, is that it disguises what is really going on. For instance, Lidl’s plan to up its planning gain offer by building more houses and schools in order to get planning permission has already been written off as a cynical ploy to get round planning restrictions.

We need ideas for building a solid retail future

Well, quite, that’s exactly what they’re doing and what the hell is wrong with that? We need houses, we need schools and other related infrastructure, and we want more convenience grocery outlets. This may not be the whole answer to the future of the high street but it’s a better answer than many of the lame suggestions we have had in the last five years.

Now lets’ think about the big changes that will need to be made and how hard they are going to be. Firstly, landlords and land owners will need to think about what multiple mixed retail and domestic and entertainment complexes imply for rent and rates values. Secondly, local authorities, which generally don’t have a great reputation for understanding how retail works, will need to get themselves better educated about how retail is changing and appoint people who really understand what a regenerated High Street could actually look like.

Retail jobs need more protection

The unions can’t help; the TUC recently called on the government to “up its game“, which is a typical comment from them, when really they also should be taking a more collaborative role in the future of retail, in support of their members who are losing their jobs.

The Government always talks about helping, but look at the evidence. The industry magazine, The Grocer, has described the Government’s latest initiative as Groundhog Day for the for High Street, perhaps remembering that there have been other initiatives that didn’t really go anywhere. And anyone remember the Future High Streets Forum or the Mary Portas pilots? So now we have two new ones, the Retail Sector Council and the Expert Advisory Panel on High Streets.

High street evolution is on a roll

No criticisms from me about the people who sit on the panel, clever people all, but really, what are they actually going to do, apart from tell us what we almost certainly already know. And by the time they report, things will no doubt have moved on again.

What Lidl is up to is of course not the whole answer, but it is at least a practical solution to the problem of how to design retail in the context of a changing environment, including the need for more residential accommodation.

Retailers are pretty good at this in the US, where planning regulation is not quite so Draconian and they have infinite space. I have reported on this on at www.retailconnections.co.uk looking at residential developments that mix retail, leisure, and fitness.

Time to think of community consumer needs

This approach doesn’t really stack up as whole town and city planning, but it does work for local communities that live there. And maybe we have to think like this, where local authorities stop thinking about towns as a whole, given that so many already pretty messed up and no longer really hold together as towns, and start thinking about the people who live, work, shop and play in them. Who speaks for the consumer on the highs street of tomorrow? We are way past toilets, parking and street markets now; let’s talk to the people who really matter, the people who are shopping from work or home on their phones, collecting from edge of town drop boxes, buying £10,000 cars from shopping centres, posting on Instagram not what they have just bought but what they are doing, where they are, and who they are with.

The high street is a linear concept limited by space and time, while retail is now unencumbered by these limitations. So please let’s think about the future of retail in that context and stop being sentimental about the high street.


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