I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. At this time every town had its high street. Even every village had its own small version of a high street. What you saw there was an assemblage of shops, selling products for almost every need. A colourful multitude of offers in a functioning environment. It was quite common for my family to go window shopping in the evenings, especially during seasonal highlights like Christmas time when every shop owner did his/her best to attract the consumer.
And then silently the decay began. First the villages lost their high streets, then the small towns and even the high streets in the big cities changed to a big disfunctional cosmos of gold mining for astronomic rents and to an agglomeration of boring conformity. First the private owners gave up, then the midsized retail chains gave up and were replaced by multinational behemoths, making every high street in every town look exactly the same. Taking things so far that today you see exactly the same stores two or three times on the same high street. If I only think about the density of the branch network of one single American coffee vendor, well, this tells it all.
Long story short, if we talk about dying high streets today, we have to face the simple truth that they have been dying for decades. And nothing has happend to revive or rethink them. Instead it was grab what you can get as long as the patient is still breathing. A silent agreement, equally for landlords and retailers.
And now there’s covid. And in Europe most of the shops are closed. Cities and their high streets currently look like ghost towns, like scenes from some dystopic Hollywood movie. And the longer the situation lasts, in Germany for months now, you see more and more signs saying for rent. The current situation is the death sentence for the last remaining private shop owners and a massive threat for the major retailers, making it impossible for them to explain to their share holders why anybody should invest in them. So they leave the hight streets too, or simply go bankrupt.
Let’s be without any empathy for a moment and say let’s leave it to the market. While one goes bankrupt another company will seize the opportunity and take over. This would not only be heartless and cold, ignoring so many personal fates, it would be old thinking in a whole new, maybe forever changed, game. Assuming that consumers will come back to the high streets, when someone else does the show, is naive and short sighted. Simply moving on by copy and paste, doing old tricks in new flashy clothes? I fear this will not work.
When COVID-19 is over, consumer behaviour will have changed massively. Changing consumer behaviour is no rocket science and usually does not take more than weeks. Can anybody imagine what staying at home for two years and doing shopping online means for brick and mortar retail? This naive expectation, that consumers will flood the high streets because they missed them so much, could be deceiving. Maybe they don’t? Covid is very likely the biggest game changer for retail and a good opportunity to rethink the concept of urban living. Maybe the concept of the high street is as outdated as the concept of the department store?
Cities have been changing their faces since the first people settled there. And our current concept of a city is nothing more than a snapshot, being based on the assumption that this is the only way to be. Covid pushes us to a crossroads. We can simply carry on and hope that all will work out fine or we can rethink how cities should look like in the future. Rethink concepts of public space, bringing families back to the cities in liveable environments, even in the high streets. The biggest disruption might be turning back the clock and recreating the city as a mixed space for living, for culture, for community and of course for shopping. Instead of carrying on to believe in faceless deserts of ever repeating retail outlets and office buildings. It’s the utopian idea of bringing the soul back to the city.
Column written by Peter Hollo from Ph — International Consultants