It’s been a rocky few years for our local town centres and high streets. Yet there are signs that this year that high street shopping might just be making a comeback.
Online retailers that helped kill off high street brands are now starting to charge for returns. Many people are complaining about the poor quality of garments, questionable production methods and removal of customer service lines too.
The cost-of-living crisis is also having an impact. There is evidence that more people are returning to shopping in the real world because they can judge the quality of the items that they want to buy and set budgets by sticking to cash for purchases.
This is great news – but we all need to play a part if we want to breathe life back in to our communities. Here are my tips on what the year ahead might hold – and how you can get involved.
Make online businesses pay
Online shops don’t have to pay the same level of business rates – the tax high street shops pay depending on the value of the shop. Leaving aside warehouse costs, they don’t have the same energy, staffing and maintenance costs either.
Taxing online shops more is clearly the answer to this – though that’s for the Government to sort out. However, why not cut back on your online shopping and use the internet for browsing (like we did in ye olde days) to build a shopping list, match prices and compare. Then head out to the shops to make your purchase.
Turn the high street in to an experience
My big prediction for the high street this year is the rise of the collective shopping experience. Big cities are already awash with food ‘experience’ venues where different pop-up restaurants operate together under one roof. This model could easily apply to retailers too – allowing those big empty department stores to come back to life once more. And there are practical reasons for this.
Take trying on clothes. Buying online means we have no changing rooms. But if we could order a range of sizes and colours to a ‘collective’ shop where we could try them on, browse a returns rack and grab a cocktail with your mates, then wouldn’t that be more fun? The same goes for things like cosmetics and perfume which really need to be sampled in person. This would reduce our reliance on deliveries – which generate hundreds of thousands of complaints – and would make shopping an experience again.
Subsidise travel and redesign the town centre
High streets and town centres have been under onslaught for decades as a consequence of the roads that run through them. The jury is out on whether cars drive business. However, if we’re going to have a good browse and a chat, maybe it’s time to be bolder and consider partial or full-time pedestrianisation.
Rising petrol costs have made using a car less economical, so now is the time to decide if we want our councils to invest in buses, trains, trams and bikes.
Encourage diversity in businesses
You can make a difference by suggesting to your elected representatives what you’d like from the high street. For example, rather than using a huge online travel website, why not provide incentives for a local travel agent to switch from online and set up store? Or encourage shops that provide produce from the local area?
By working with landlords, communities can keep the shutters up. An old trick for vacant lots used in some cities is to give them to artists for free for a set period of time. We Brits love a market – so why not fill the lost stores with art and crafts that you can admire, buy or just have a peak at?
Vote with your feet (and vote literally too)
Don’t forget you can write to your MP and local council about many of these suggestions. So if you’re angered by boarded up stores, go offline and head out to shop. And if you have ideas on how to improve your community, tell your MP and local councillors.
Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.