Are all high streets in decay?

I’ve written a few times around the decay in “high street” retail. It’s a very Anglo-Australian-American name and place – and apparently its decay is a very Anglo-Australian-American problem. There is no decay in European or Asian main town thoroughfares. In the main they remain active, vibrant and the domain of established niche retailers, often family-owned and intergenerational.

Why is this so?

Firstly even the name “High Street” is only really found in the UK, Australia and Canada, as well as in the US, where the term “Main Street” is more prevalent. In the UK it’s the most common name of a street, with 5,410 of these precincts, and in Australia where High Street comes in at number four with around 393 locations.

And even if the name of the shopping strip isn’t “High Street”, most Australian suburban and small town shopping streets are in decline. In the Australian Financial Review last week a report from Knight Frank showed the overall vacancy rate for 11 Melbourne suburban retail strips has increased from 7.2% to 8.4% over the past 12 months.

Here’s my guess from walking high streets in the UK and Australia. Every single one of the 5,410 high streets in the UK has one charity shop, and some have five. In Australia I’d guess that over half of our high streets have a charity shop, and it’s growing. It’s a sad indictment of our planning, traffic rules and our suburban and small town living that many of retailers that are surviving, and actually flourishing on high streets, pay no GST, no corporation tax, and get their stock and staff basically for free.

And they chose the high street location because the landlords are traditionally individuals or families, don’t invest much and off cheap rents. That’s right isn’t it? Well, yes. But there are some underlying shopper behaviours that also drive this.

Our High Streets are now thoroughfares to somewhere else. We move through them by car, bus, tram, bike or on foot.

We’re moving through to get to somewhere else. Even on foot we tend to be heading to a covered mall or large format grocery store. Parking is a nightmare, transit stops are 500 metres apart and if it’s a wet or hot or windy or cold or snowy day, we have no cover. We have to lug large items a long way back to a car or transit point. It’s almost the exact opposite of a modern covered mall. So all in all, a very shopper unfriendly space.

Well, not always.

Specialist shops in small town high streets in Europe and Asia still thrive. They tend to sell small, high value items, or small, daily necessities, but with luxury or niche elements. Think delicatessens, wine shops, butchers and cheese shops. They are close to the transit point or can be cycled to and bikes left outside.

They aren’t a place for a bulky or heavy shop, they’re a place for a convenient, quality shop. Cycleries, specialist clothing shops, mid-tier cafes and lunch and dinner diners …not quiet restaurants, abound.

And councils and local authorities help by covering the area to provide protection from weather extremes, which is something we’ve lost in Australia. Walk around regional towns and almost every High Street has inter-linking sidewalk-wide canopies in front of every shop and bank. In our cities these have mostly gone.

In Europe and Asia most still have them. If it’s hot or wet there is protection to allow people to take their time shopping, choose slowly, talk to shop keepers and enjoy their shopping.

Success or just continuity always requires a blend of stakeholders. Landlords willing to reinvest, councils to co-invest and mandate improvements, and new entrepreneurs and corporate retailers willing to think carefully about what a high street shopper wants. Major corporates are happy to invest in busy high street retailing.

I walked the back streets of some small Chinese towns (only 1 million residents!) with Walmart execs several years ago, looking at the small format grocers they had bought as part of major acquisitions. They were all at the foot of residential blocks, mixed into busy streets. And all were trading better than their large format stores.

I do hope some shopper advisory panels are being set up in our towns and cities, with a specific focus on the high street.

I do love the occasional rummage around a charity shop, but not because it’s the only one open on the high street.

Kevin Moore is a retail expert and the chairman of Crossmark Asia Pacific Holdings and Mirador Retail Technology. He is also the founder of TheRoadToRetail.


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