The future of the high street is an issue currently attracting widespread attention, with over fifty major UK retailers going into administration in the last year, affecting over 50,000 jobs. Small businesses continue to struggle against supermarket giants and chain stores, which are increasingly prevalent both in the form of bricks-and-mortar shops and online.
In Brixton alone there are already more than twelve Tesco and Sainsbury’s within a one mile radius. Sainsbury’s has revealed plans for a 12,000 square foot supermarket on the site of Carpetright, on the corner of Tulse Hill and Water Lane, while there are ongoing protests against the demolition of the historic George IV pub, which would be replaced by a Tesco.
As the economy’s largest private sector employer, retail accounts for three million jobs with around 40 percent of teenagers entering the workforce in this industry.
However, despite fears for small businesses, industry insiders believe there is a vital tool that could save the high street: the internet.
Through their app Clapham Hero, a free iPhone and android app featuring every local business on Clapham High Street, in Clapham Old Town and on Venn St and Voltaire Road, co-creators James Fraser and Mark Thomas say they are building a virtual high street.
“The internet isn’t a competitor to the high street,” Mr Fraser told the Weekender.
Throughout history retailers have grappled with the question of whether the consumer should come to the goods or the goods should come to the consumer.
“150 years ago when mail order catalogues started out they were a revolution and a huge threat to shops because suddenly consumers had choices and convenience when they couldn’t get to the shops,” he explained.
However, with the introduction of the automobile people were able to drive to shops themselves, which hit back at catalogue shopping. Now with the internet, consumers have choices, competitive prices and convenience when shopping online. But online shopping is not the be all and end all, Mr Fraser said. “The cost and convenience are frequently overstated and when you add in postage and handling and delays in postage you don’t always save in the end”.
The closure of video rental chain Blockbuster and music superstore HMV is an interesting development in the ongoing retail story, he continued. “HMV and Blockbuster are providers of goods that can now be delivered down your copper wiring to your phoneline so they’re fighting a losing battle,” he said, joking: “Not all shops face this threat because it’s going to be a long time before a pair of shoes can come to you through your phoneline.”
Where the internet was the brainchild of the ‘90s, mobile internet is the future, he believes. “Mobile internet is giving people internet information while they’re on the high st,” he said quoting catalogue merchant Argos as a prime success story. Argos has embraced the internet, garnering 40 percent of its business through online orders but also retaining 90 percent of customers visiting its stores. “People reserve products online but they still go into the shop because they like the principle of being able to collect their purchase on the same day or return it on the spot if they don’t like it,” Mr Fraser explains.
“Mobile internet is perhaps a saviour,” he claims. “Internet is for when you’re at home and if it’s snowing out perhaps you won’t feel like going out shopping, but if you’re already out and you have access to internet through your phone it really complements in-store shopping”.
Beyond this the high street is steeped in history, said Mel Larsen director of Next Level, an online directory and support network for local businesses in Streatham.
Though voted “Britain’s worst street” in a 2002 poll, Streatham High Road, which has the longest continuous High Street in England –and possibly Europe- spanning two miles in length, was home to the country’s first supermarket in 1951.
“We were the first and we intend to be the last,” Ms Larsen said.
Online shopping will never completely replace the instore experience because people like the social, face-to-face aspect, she explained. “People love to browse in the few book shops we have left, to feel, see and smell the product and have the full experience. When video came out people thought that would kill the cinema but it just created more choices; I watch DVDs at home, I go to the cinema and sometimes I even go to the theatre. Shopping is the same, it isn’t just about buying”.
The internet’s main benefit for high street shops is providing vital information in order to get customers to physically visit the shop, yet Google research showed that last year 48 percent of small local businesses were invisible on mobile search. “We find the most common question is people having heard about a new place that has opened but not knowing where it is,” Ms Larsen said. This is where Twitter is beneficial: an infinite number of people can respond to a question, almost guaranteeing you will get an answer, sometimes almost instantly. “This is a prime example of how online can assist real-time shopping,” Ms Larsen said.
Essentially local shops need community support to survive. “Ideally, if you try to do 20 percent of your shopping locally, that’s all it takes for a high road to survive and thrive,” Ms Larsen said.
“I’m a bit of an optimist because I’m someone who loves to browse in shops. If we lost the high streets we would totally lose the character of this country”.