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Shopping and the Death of the High Street

In the UK there is a lot of talk about the death of the high street. It is more and more common these days to see boarded up shops, or shops which have become low quality outlets such as pound shops or charity shops. The decline is usually put down to a combination of the recent recession and the growth of internet shopping, and I am sure that this is true. However, most people seem to be of the opinion that this decline is a bad thing, whereas I hold the exact opposite view.

I like shopping on the internet. Actually, let me rephrase that, I do not really like shopping at all, but if I have to do it, my first port of call is normally the internet. As everyone reading this will be well aware, you can obtain most goods you might ever want to purchase on the internet. Not only that, your purchases will be delivered to your front door, and are likely to have cost less than if you bought them in the high street. In fact it always surprises me that buying things online is usually cheaper than going to the shop. I, for one, would happily pay a surcharge for this convenience. But except in the case of buying groceries from the large supermarkets, it does seem to be the case that goods are always cheaper online.

In view of this, it is hardly surprising that more and more people are switching their shopping habits to use the internet instead of visiting a shop in person. This will not be the case for everyone. There are many people who regard shopping as a leisure activity, and these people will always want to go to a shop in person. But there are also just as many people, like me, for whom shopping is a chore.

The high street shops that are closing down are falling prey to the simple economics of supply and demand. They can’t keep going without sufficient customers. In the future as more and more people turn, like me, to the internet to do their shopping, the need for shops on the high street will continue to reduce, resulting in more and more of these empty and boarded up shops. As an area starts to go into decline like this, the quality of the remaining shops in the same neighbourhood also deteriorates over time – the appearance of many bookmakers is a sure sign; second hand furniture shops is another - and these areas eventually tend to become magnets for crime and anti-social behaviour.

The decline is inevitable, but I believe we should view this as an opportunity, and not as a threat. And here’s why.

The UK, and in particular the big towns and cities where all the retail outlets exist, is a very densely populated place. The population of England is similar to the population of France. But France is about 5 times the size of England. There has also been a rapid increase in UK population over the last few years, but there has not been the necessary house building activity needed to cater for this. All these factors mean that there is a significant housing shortage in the UK.

What an opportunity this is to return the excess retail space to residential use. It would admittedly take a bit of will on the part of the government and local councils to do this. Areas in which many shops had closed down could be reclassified as residential with remaining shops being given grants to relocate to the now smaller retail districts that survive. The government would also possibly have to compensate local councils for the reduction in revenues they would be receiving from business rates, although to offset this there is of course the revenue they would be collecting in council tax from the new residences.

Let’s consider exactly what that these changes mean

  • Less traffic because less people now need to travel to the retail areas. One delivery van dispatching internet orders can take the place of 100 car journeys into town. Potentially this could mean some of the multi-storey and other car parking facilities can be removed, and replaced with yet more housing, improving the situation still further.
  • Reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour in these areas which were in decline.
  • More housing, in central locations, meaning both that housing could become more affordable and more people would be able to live near their place of employment,
  • Higher quality retail districts contained within a smaller area making for a more convenient and accessible shopping experience for those not shopping online,
  • Not all the freed up retail space need necessarily be returned to housing. Instead there will be room for all the good things in life that you cannot just buy on the internet such as cafes, restaurants, theatres, spas, sports clubs and gyms, concert venues etc etc.

On the downside of course, it means that many independent shops are going to go out of business and their staff will be looking for alternative employment. But this is going to happen anyway, you just have to look at the figures of how internet shopping increases year by year. There is no point in being in self-denial about this and hoping that new businesses will come in to take over the retail space of failed shops. Long term this is never going to happen, and the decline will increase year on year.

The government needs to accept this and manage the transition. If done properly all the benefits I have mentioned above can be realized.

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