Mary Portas tells us all that the High Street must be redesigned. The mistake being who it should be re- or even designed by. As Jane Jacobs kept trying to tell us the urban environment is emergent, not imposed. Or rather, urban environments that work for us human being are that.
The collapse of three major chains last week has put 30,000 retail jobs at risk and triggered fears for the future of town centres. But the picture isn’t all bleak, according to experts including the former government retail tsar, Mary Portas, who says there is too much nostalgia and too little optimism about the future of the British high street.
“The days of stacking stuff high and selling it fast are completely and utterly over,” says Portas, who has worked in retail for more than 40 years. “The brands that dominated did that for years and they failed to offer anything beyond mediocrity. Does anyone really miss BHS? Does anyone care about Dorothy Perkins?”
All of that’s true. The interesting question is, well, what next? The correct answer is “We dunno”. There are lots of people with idea, no doubt about that, but what we require is some system of sorting through said ideas to find the ones that work.
“We’re looking at a whole new generation who aren’t going to prop up the likes of Philip Green any more,” says Portas. “They’re not supporting businesses who don’t prioritise people or the planet. We’re moving away from that: there is a new value system at play.”
Well, that’s interesting, Certainly some do. Body Shop exists, so does Lush. Then again so does Primark, meaning that there isn’t one monolithic bloc of desires out there.
So, who is it that should be making the decisions about what works and what doesn’t then?
Research routinely shows that sustainability, innovation and standing for something aren’t just buzzwords for marketers, but the keys to building brand loyalty among younger customers who demand that the companies they buy from show social responsibility.
And there’s our problem. Research does indeed show this and bully for research. Because that reality out there isn’t quite so insistent on the point. Boohoo got caught using some dodgy suppliers. An ethical disaster in fat. Less than minimum wage at some suppliers. The stock dropped. As it turned out the young, ethical, consumers couldn’t give a toss. They kept buying those £1 bikinis by the truckload.
So, retail will be dominated by ethical concerns will it? The answer being no, it won’t. This will be as true of physical as online. Retail will be dominated by what consumers want. Not, as it happens, by what they say they want nor even by what the upper middle classes say they should want. But by what people are willing to splash the cash upon and that’s a lot less in tune with fashionable worries than most assume.