Monday, September 14, 2009

High Street Blues in the UK

...I keep one of my search widgets on my Netvibes web portal looking for Miles Davis related YouTube postings. Imagine my surprise when I viewed the above post by UK retailing consultant Brian Moore. Sometimes these kind of nuggets of information to what is happening in the world of markets and urbanism arrive by sheer happenstance.

The video commentary deals with the rampantly imploding town centers of the UK and is interspersed between the depressing photos of mixed-use towncenters turning into, well, into mixed-use ghost towns. Imagine that. Old/New Urbanism going caput...Makes me wonder how long before similar things begin happening in our spanking new walkable town centers and revitalized downtowns. Among the things that Moore says about Britain's retail landscape is that the recession has been driving businesses "out-of-town and online at the expense of high street", a stark contertone to the retool and re-localize recessionary panacea we keep offering as urbanists.

The photos look convincing and with scary figures and forecasts interspersed, Moore makes a claim that this recent phenomenon is more than a blip in the UK. Britain's bone-headed "empty shop tax" might be reinforcing the process of decline, and one of the things Moore claims is that "store closures (represent) a long-term structural issue, rather than simply a short-term cyclical effect of the recession". I wonder how much of that is true, and what Moore is implying about the ability of UK retailers to pare down for High Street. Is the downtown eviscerating donut back in our horizon? It will be interesting to watch whether British urban consumers get used to online retail or commute out of town for laptops and groceries. My oh my...a lot to watch and think about here.


Patrick said...

"Makes me wonder how long before similar things begin happening in our spanking new walkable town centers and revitalized downtowns."

I think the situation is different in the US. We faced the exodus of mundane, daily retail shops like hardware stores and grocery stores long ago. Most of the vibrant in-town commercial areas here in Atlanta contain either new branches of large chains (such as target and best buy) or shops catering to a niche (such as hipsters, immigrants, or African Americans).

Yes, the relocalize strategy faces a long-term challenge from the Internet. All commercial stores face a long-term challenge from the Internet. I figure we'll either all end up living confined largely to our houses, buying our groceries from a distributor across the country, or we'll realize that we like going to the store and seeing other people. I like the think the second option is more likely, since we are social creatures. But I have little evidence to base that on. Only the vain hope that the world won't go to shit.

Thanks for a little cloud of pessimsm. I really needed that.

Eric Orozco said...

I also agree, Patrick, that the atmosphere seems to be very different here. I think, foremost, because the type of retail offered by the typical UK high street is different in nature than the discount big box type and mom and pop niches of our urban areas, all of which are highly calibrated to serve the catchment population of existing loyal consumers. It is already, even in our downtowns, largely auto-dependent, so it is just an urban retrofit of "out-of-town" retail.

Still, one professor of mine in college always warned about using retail to create "vitality". Retail is nurtured by vitality. Retail is a very special flower and very high maintenance...I think, many urbanists seem to treat it as a use to include by right on the ground floor, without actually treating the larger question of its sustained viability. Other categories of relevant uses need to be thought about in the context of their district.