Bustling high street scene

The future of
the high street

Our high streets are in rapid decline. Once bustling avenues of activity and commerce – a walk in any city centre across the country is evidence enough that these have degraded to characterless corridors of cookie-cutter store templates slowly declining into obscurity. Why has it come to this? And what needs to change in the future to bring the high street back to our collective minds as a place to shop, eat, socialise and spend time?

As a society, our expectations of trade and value have shifted massively in a relatively short space of time. Living now in the connected age, our reach has never been further, our choice has never been greater, and the fight for our collective attention has never been stronger. As such, brands can no longer rely on the strength of their product alone to tempt us into making a purchase.

Our focus now, as customers (consciously or not), is on purpose. What is a brand really doing when they’re selling us their products or services? What do they stand for? What cause are they standing up for in this world? How can we, the consumers, relate to brands and feel compelled to become part of their tribe?

The brands and businesses that we see disappearing from our high streets are the ones that didn’t see this coming, didn’t want to adapt to the way that the world is moving forward, or simply didn’t move fast enough. Failing to find a way to communicate ‘why’ consumers should buy a product or service, before articulating what it is or how it works means that any messaging or marketing is likely to be filtered out of our consciousness or consideration.

We all like to talk now about experiences when it comes to retail – ‘the high street and retail in general will be saved by offering the most extravagant and “out-there” experience that could never be forgotten’. This approach often manifests itself in ever louder store environments, often filled with digital screens or requiring you to see the world through your phone and “connect”. The trouble with this is that ‘experiences’ are often great the first time and then hard to repeat or live up to. Matching your expectations means constantly having to find ways to up the ante. This requires ever faster cycles of regeneration and investment to stay relevant and front of our minds, and its simply not a sustainable approach to business.

The waste generated from near constant refreshes of retail spaces can be huge. Tens of thousands of tonnes of material waste can find its way to landfill and incineration, and it does so in front of our eyes, yet we don’t think of it as it’s so easy to ignore, wilfully or not.

So, what’s the answer? How do we bring our high streets and retail in general back to a better place? An experience? – yes, but with a more coherent view of what this really means. More importantly – responsibility. Retailing will never go away, it’s been a part of human society for millennia. Our approach to it however has to change.

Retail needs to be thought of and designed with a more holistic viewpoint. Experiences are about connecting face to face with other people, sharing knowledge and expertise, living by and acting-on your morals and values to forge relationships that we all want to build with each other – brands, businesses and customers alike.

Customer service is absolutely key. Store staff are the most effective conduit through which a brand’s mission and values are passed. Holding conversation with someone that exudes passion for what they’re doing and what they’re engaging you with is absolutely infectious. It’s the experience that sticks with us forever and doesn’t require constant regeneration or spiralling investment. What’s more, a strong human connection and a good experience though conversation, breeds a brand advocate – the best bit of marketing you could ever hope for.

The design of retail spaces so rarely takes a holistic and full circle approach. Following the standard linear approach of design – make – throw away is simply unsustainable and can’t continue. Instead, designing with a view to minimise environmental impact, provide longevity through flexibility and quality, and creating a plan for the end of life scenario, ultimately looking to avoid decommissioning fixtures and fittings and encouraging re-use.

Purpose holds all of this together. Brands and businesses operating today require a purpose, a reason to exist and to be able to voice the change they want to see in the world. Its draws customers to get involved and acts as the clear direction by which all actions and decisions are made.

The future relies less on focussing on finding quick ways to grab attention and instead looking for longevity in the approach. The future of the high street (and of retail), is really good customer service with strong values at its core, store environments with a full life cycle considered and designed in, and a purpose behind the whole operation – the reason why, a brand or business exists and operates in the first place.

Store staff are the most effective conduit through which a brand’s mission and values are passed.

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