I WAS invited to offer some thoughts on the importance of shopping locally and what can be done to help save our high streets. Unfortunately that’s like asking a turkey (no comments please!) to support Christmas, and if there was an award for hypocrisy, I would be in line for consideration.
When I was living in the United States (and that was some time ago now) many city centres – what we would call the “high street” – were experiencing a severe downturn in business.
Department shops were closing as shoppers chose instead the convenience of out-of-town shopping malls where there was ample free parking and they could shop indoors, either heated or air-conditioned according to climate or location, and basically do all their shopping under one roof.
I suspect the same has started to happen in this country also. Initially people were critical of the introduction of shopping malls, seeing them as an unwanted import, but over the years malls have increased as people found it so much better shopping indoors instead of dragging themselves and their purchases around outside in the cold and wet.
Convenience and comfort will win out and, as a result, we see so many of our traditional names disappearing from our high streets as stores struggle and close.
And, of course, that aspect of convenience is the driving force behind online shopping – and this is where I have to hold up my hand. I honestly can’t remember the last time I drove into my nearest town centre to do any shopping.
Just about everything I find I need can be obtained conveniently and reliably online. In fact some of the retailers can deliver to my doorstep quicker than I could go and purchase things in the shops – and it would cost me more in petrol and parking to do it.
Certainly the days of local greengrocers, butchers and bakers would seem to be on the wane when, again for reasons of comfort, convenience and economy, people can do all their food shopping under one roof at their local supermarket, or, these days, have their shopping delivered to their door.
I appreciate that all of that doesn’t help the survival of our town centre businesses, but if that is the way of things, then maybe traders have to learn to adapt to the current state of demand and supply because shoppers are understandably going to opt for convenience and economics every time, and unfortunately the odd foray into the town centre out of necessity isn’t going to help the situation very much at all.
Yarm, where I live, has a very attractive High Street (that’s its name), but the range of goods on sale in its shops are, of necessity, limited. I think people, including visitors, tend to stroll along both sides of the street basically window shopping and possibly finding the occasional item that attracts their custom, but it would be mostly the posh coffee shops and restaurants (and at night the excessive number of pubs and bars) that do the most business.
There also seems to be a problem with the ever-increasing rent charged by the individuals who actually own the buildings as we see business after business close and premises change hands. Long before shoppers are blamed for not supporting their local high street more, a large slice of the problem has to be laid at the door of those property owners.
Again I have to hold up my hand and say that I do very little shopping on our High Street, not because of online provision but because I wouldn’t find the things I need in these shops. The only exception would be our one supermarket where I shop almost every day – shopping for myself I tend to buy only as much as I need from day to day.
The problem is that it is fairly small with, therefore, a restricted variety of stock and so if I need things they don’t sell, or I’m bored with the choices they offer, then I take the short car ride to the next nearest and larger supermarket and so my business, of necessity, goes elsewhere.
As much as I would like to see the survival of the traditional high street, I suspect the days of heading into town to shop are a thing of the past for a lot of people and, as busy as we all are these days, perhaps it’s understandable that we increasingly opt for the convenience of the internet and the things we shop for being delivered to us.
So is there anything that can be done to help our high streets? I suspect it’s the businesses themselves rather than their potential customers that have to discover what that might be – while they still can.
Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.