Can The High Street Survive?

High street shops in towns and cities around the country are facing their biggest challenge since the spread of online shopping. But can anything be done to solve the problems faced by local retailers?

Under pressure

Large and small outlets feel the pressure of a traditional shopping environment suffering from an onslaught of new technologies. Town centre shops and restaurants are negatively affected by the internet as it offers low prices and home delivery at ever quicker speeds. Study after study searches for a way to fight the decline of town centres although without finding any meaningful solutions. As big names close with the loss of thousands of jobs there is a scarcity of ideas about what to do to save the high street. Retail chains reduce the number of shops as each location is examined to find additional sales. Rental agreements are renegotiated to reduce costs in an attempt to escape closure, which, in turn, affects property values and investor returns.

Falling bank branches affect the high street too, as they close outlets in town and villages to drive customers online. Post offices are fewer in number also, which changes people’s shopping patterns. Reversing these trends is often discussed but little is ever agreed in a retail industry shrinkage triggered by a barrage of new technology and tumbling profits.

Finding solutions

Solutions such as freely available Wifi, better public transport and more convenient parking arrangements are explored, albeit more in hope than any firm belief of finding a solution. Such proposals would cost the public purse at a time when budgets are strained and promise no guarantee of a return. But even if temporarily successful such solutions lack longevity as the digital economy demands new and creative thinking. Managing vacant property databases is sometimes offered as a way to generate opportunities but patterns are difficult to predict as new habits and behaviours are adopted by the next generation of internet savvy shoppers.

There are some practical issues that can ease the problem, albeit not fully address the plight of all those affected. They include a reduction in property rates for retailers, as it is an unfair and disproportionate tax; and taxing internet businesses that pay little tax or rates. In the twenty-first century, the introduction of digital solutions to digital problems and digital taxes for digital businesses is one way to help rebalance the economy.

Another answer of course involves reordering the entire tax system to reflect the rapidly growing and all-encompassing digital economy. But such change must come with the understanding that the old rules no longer apply as the high street has already passed the point of return to what was considered normal.

So, the survival of the high street is under severe threat, as its role in people’s lives must be reinvented to cope with the disruptive technologies of an unforgiving digital world.