Mark Casci: Why vanishing high streets are a threat to our nation’s soul

Exciting plans have been unveiled for Vicar Lane Shopping Centre in Chesterfield.
Exciting plans have been unveiled for Vicar Lane Shopping Centre in Chesterfield.
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“Technology is best when it brings people together,” the American tech entrepreneur Matt Mullenweg once said.

As a developer of social media platforms one can see what Mullenweg was driving at.

Leeds's main shopping street Briggate

Leeds's main shopping street Briggate

But the reality is the advancement of technology can have an exclusive side and in way that will alter society’s fabric on a profound level.

This week research by transatlantic law firm Womble Dickinson showed that 50 per cent of UK retail sales will be made online within a decade.

Its The Digital Tipping Point document shows that changing demographics, more efficient home delivery services and the decline of physical outlets would drive the change.

In particular the changing face of the population will drive this move. By 2029 so called Millennials and Generation Zs will make up 50 per cent of adult consumers (for those like me who do not fit into these categories these groups refer to people born from the early 1980s onward, or as I like to put it, those who have never made or received an audio mix tape).

Amazon. Pic: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Amazon. Pic: Paul Faith/PA Wire

These millions of individual have grown up in a world where online retail has been every day life.

And, with each passing day, this sector gets more and more efficient with fast, affordable and speedy delivery process now the norm for many retailers.

Online marketing too grows in terms of its ability to tailor advertising on a deeply specific level by monitoring your search behaviour online (for reader’s interest, cycling components and offers on vinyl records often pop up on my smartphone, bringing into sharp relief how drab my contribution to the world wide web is).

This week’s column is far from a lamentation for times of yore. Indeed online retail has handed Yorkshire a real economic boon.

Picture by Allan McKenzie/YWNG - 02/03/19 - Press - Dewsbury Shopping, Dewsbury,  England - Dewsbury shoppers.

Picture by Allan McKenzie/YWNG - 02/03/19 - Press - Dewsbury Shopping, Dewsbury, England - Dewsbury shoppers.

The region’s central location relative to the rest of the UK has made it a important logistics hub.

Amazon has a tremendous presence in South Yorkshire, where it has several massive fulfilment centres. If you order a large scale electrical advice from Amazon, it will have been warehoused in the region.

Similarly Asos has a massive distribution hub in the region while Leeds-based Clipper Logistics is among the best performing firms of its type nationwide.

Online retail is a godsend in the context of a world that is increasingly busy and fast-paced.

It provides an outlet for those who are prohibited from physical retail or live in remote locations and allows the millions of us who are ‘time poor’ in terms of our available freetime to get hold of the things we need without damaging our schedules.

However what online retail cannot deliver is the mission statement set out by Mullenweg.

When I interviewed Karen Hubbard from Wakefield’s The Card Factory last year she set out in detail how physical retail has an important utility in providing a vital point of social contact for thousands.

One anecdote that stood out to me concerned a conversation she had a with an elderly lady in Scotland. Ms Hubbard asked her a routine question and during their discussion she discovered that this interaction was the first the lady had been involved in that week.

With all of its convenience, online retail is simply incapable of delivering these sorts of connections.

Much of the unrest felt in our country at present comes from the failure of advancement to bring everyone along for the ride.

By cutting off these social links we are at risk of repeating the same mistake, a heady social cost to accompany the physical and economic damage that a diminishing high street will bring.

The optimists will suggest the chain stores will be replaced on our high streets with a raft of vibrant independent outlets but this theory was being trotted out around 10 years ago and, at present, seems to be built on sand.

We were once referred to as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ by Napoleon. While this description may not ring true in 2019 we cannot risk becoming a nation of no shopkeepers, less we lose forever a vital part of our nation’s soul.