Little Boxes

The recent £295million purchase of Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge by online fashion retailer ASOS has been seen as another example of software eating the world. This narrative ignores the greed and rapacious mismanagement that characterised Sir Philip and Lady Tina’s rule and undermined the long term viability of these companies through underinvestment and extractive short-sightedness. It also focuses on what is lost without realizing what there is to be won.


The decline of Britain’s high streets has been a subject of hand wringing and wailing since the demise of one-penny-chew and one-pound-tin whistle merchant, Woolworths in 2008. The failure of many legacy retailers to adapt to digitisation and increasingly blended shopping habits, the financial crash and elevated consumer expectations of retail experiences left a number of casualties in its wake. Along with Woolworth’s you can count tea shop Whittards and furniture chain Walmsley, to name just three of the ‘W’s. Many of the famous names that sunk without a trace represent the hollowing out of the mediocre middle; not cheap enough to justify elbowing others out the way to get to the tills to get a bargain that doesn’t exist online – or that you wouldn’t risk without trying on (hence Primark thrives, Gap dies…) or experiential enough to be worth a visit (Cath Kidson collapses one month into Lockdown one, Channel endures…) But I want to analyse the other side of this equation; what is left behind. The pandemic, as it has in so many other areas, has been a catalyst, not the turning point, for the High Street. And the hollowing out that it has sped up, has, like Pandora’s box, left us with empty boxes filled with hope.


What was the High Street

My first assertion; the high street was a bit crap. Even Oxford Street, the sine qua non of UK high streets was crap – in fact it was very crap, on a very grand scale. But we put up with it because good enough had to be good enough. Sure a few retailers did better; the original Nike Town and (ironically) the flagship Topshop at Oxford Circus when it opened, and some of the independents in and around Carnaby and Newport Streets before they got priced out by chains; but retailers were generally lazy in the service and experience they offered shoppers. What was true ‘up town’ was true of small towns up and down the country… and the more prime a store’s position was, the less it tried. I even remember a time when the Piccadilly Waterstones in the old Simpson’s department store was good before it became 4 floors of Dan Brown and the Grufalo, a cafe and a kitsch stationary department. But once the internet dematerialised geography, you can’t use ‘place’ to bully people into buying. In fact they don’t need to buy from the bullies at all. 


Secondly, many of the jobs were crap jobs. Let me be clear. I do not mean that retail jobs are crap jobs, I mean that the retail jobs that many of these high street heavyweights provided were crap. Employees were not empowered to take proper decisions on the floor and smart young people who could have elevated what these companies did were disenchanted by cynical managers who pushed them to instead opt for the predictable monotony of the call centre than the capricious whims of whoever was running that day’s shift. Add in zero hours contracts and wages that failed to keep pace with the cost of living and you are unlikely to have the kind of team working the floor that wants to go above and beyond to create the kind of place I’d rather be, instead of buying trainers in my tracksuit from my sofa.


The identikit chain store high streets that devolved during the back end of the 20th century ignored a fundamental truth about shopping and ‘commerce’; it was never just about monetary exchange. They are places for human connection as well as consumption. By ignoring the former, the internet was always going to win on the latter terms, leaving in it’s wake nothing but Poundlands, pay-day loans and Paddy Power. Retail jobs were never just about pay; at their best they were about identity, esteem and belonging. The butcher, the baker and candlestick maker all had their own masteries, autonomies and fluencies; the things that make a job well done worth doing. The hollowing out of the High Street as it was provides an opportunity for this once more. But I am not talking about some kind of retro-futurist communitarian wank fantasy, but a modern revitalisation, that doesn’t seek to turn back the clock, but works with the realities of the third decade of the 21st century and provides what cannot be dematerialised. If you want a powerful indicator of what this might be, step inside your local vape shop when they reopen and see the community created around those businesses.


The dematerialisation of work

The pandemic has accelerated changes that have been a long time coming, thrusting ‘work at home’ on to many white collar workers. Though only the most naive would still claim that we will never return to an office, we have proven that a blended approach is more than possible. The implications for office jobs moving to only a partially office-based norm are huge. City centres can become more mixed as fewer total desks are needed. People who ‘had’ to be in London and other major cities, can now ‘choose’ where they want to live. If you only need to commute twice a week, 2 hours on a train where fewer commuters guarantee a seat doesn’t seem so bad. Less pressure on big cities to cater for these middle class workers means more spaces in between for the artists, students and dreamers that made these cities attractive in the first place. Those who are naturally rural or suburban by temperament can make space for those driven out by economics.


I suspect the great unanticipated beneficiary of this will be the towns where they move to. But this needs to be encouraged to happen more broadly than the usual suspects within the commuter belt. The companies that have found that they do not need to gather their whole workforce in one expensive flagship HQ should go further; they should be incentivised to open smaller offices for different teams and functions in towns and cities across the UK, encouraging the spread of these jobs and the high value service economies that grow around them to disperse. Smaller businesses that work with functions of these larger firms, whether NatWest or Netflix would grow up around different decentralised departments, creating hubs of excellence for marketing or design or coding or CNC machining. There are already clusters like this for automotive manufacturing in places like Coventry biotech around Oxford or a garment trade ripe for radical upskilling in Leicester that can be used as springboards, but what would a Stockport marketing cluster or Truro Financial Services hub look like?


The need for the real

As we have proven with this past year of Zoom quizzes and ‘nice walks’, we are social animals for whom an all-virtual life is a poor replacement. Dispersed workers will still want places to come together, hub offices and workspaces that get people out of their homes and collaborating, or simply co-existing. The idea that remote technology and the comfort of home baked sourdough will somehow make us turn our back on our own hard-wired herd instincts is absurd. Furthermore, those who are starting their career benefit from cross-pollination from peers and learning from seniors need these exchanges to grow professionally, and companies need the social capital those exchanges create to prosper. Anyone joining a new job or a new team in the last 12 months will be able to attest to how much the lack of real time together slows that progress. We have all been mortgaging the social capital we have built in reserve for some time now.


The empty units of high street provide the opportunity for this; as many of the economic functions are lost, as chain stores become cloud-stored IP we should focus on what we gain. If the dispersal of workplaces takes pressure off the cost of living, then the removal of these shops creates places for doing. Deflationary pressure on commercial rents and the simple fact that some revenue is better than none will lead shop fronts to become community spaces, not-for-profit co-working cafes, youth training centres, church halls even. Landlords should be incentivised by councils to see beyond shopping and open up sites to broader uses, things that cannot be virtualized.


Turning vacancy into possibility

The key will be to ensure that this dispersion of work and opportunity creates jobs and injects skills into a community; existing commuter towns transformed from dormitories to vibrant places in their own right. Older high streets transformed into new nexuses for exchange. The opportunity afforded by the great disruption is one where massive shifts in work, consumption and living can be used to create vibrant places with strong identities, regional roles and national links.


The end of Arcadia could offer an opportunity for genuine creative destruction.

We must act quickly to seize the chance it offers.

Category: cities, politics