Can the High Street Survive?

Most projections into the future see more leisure time as work hours shorten. Much is likely to be home-based as the technology and extra rooms in homes are harnessed to entertainment. But one leisure activity could have a major impact on the city of tomorrow: shopping.

Shopping is a major reason why towns exist, as most grew up around markets. It is still the dominant reason why most people visit town centres, according to Clive Lewis, past president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and a specialist in retail property.

Fears are increasing, however, about whether traditional shops can survive into the next century, threatened on all sides by superstores, out-of-town malls and tele-shopping. David Hunter of the major UK investor Scottish Amicable is sanguine about stricter controls proposed by the government on malls in the countryside, but feels the threat of retail warehouses has still not been fully recognized.

Mr Lewis will have none of this. Superstores, DIY centres and regional malls were all market-led developments to complement town centres rather than replace them, he says. The impact on town centres has been exaggerated. Newcastle remained vibrant after the giant Metro Centre was built. Wolverhampton has flourished since Merry Hill opened. But a shadow hangs over town centres which fail to adapt and improve. This is why Gateshead and Dudley have seen business disappear to regional centres.

The threat from further new shopping development is limited, however. Most regions except the South West are already within reach of major centre. Superstores have also reached saturation point, and the superstore chain Tesco is even returning to town centres.

The only things that will kill high streets are complacency and inertia, says Mr Lewis. Most can offer MORE than out-of town malls through a combination of shopping, eating, drinking, cinema and social atmosphere. But they need an all-embracing strategy to eradicate drab and squalid areas. Mr Hunter, a major investor in retail property, says that in the next century successful shopping streets will be considered businesses in their own right, co-ordinated and marketed as a single entity.

Traffic will be controlled rather than banned. Access is the most important factor for a town centre, and many US towns are now reversing pedestrianisation schemes introduced over the last 20 years, according to Mr Lewis. Public transport is also crucial.

The high street has been around for centuries and will still be here in the next one, says James May of the Retail Consortium, which represents all levels of retailer. But it could easily be selling different products. Once the petrol engine is consigned to the museum, for instance, cars may rely on batteries. Perhaps they may then be sold by electronics retailers rather then garages. This is the sort of change impossible to predict - any more than we could have foreseen huge DIY and garden centres, he says. In fact the decline of the car - and the likely doubling of oil prices by the next century - will have more affect on retailing than any planning rules aimed at restricting competition.

Shopping will go through a fundamental transformation by the next century, however, says retail forecaster Verdict Research. "Chore" shopping such as food will succumb to automation. Electronic systems already exist which determine the content of a shopping trolley. Cash till operators may not be required in future. Supermarket aisles crowded with goods may also disappear. Customers will wave a "wand" over a single item, transmitting a signal into storage areas, where orders will be assembled for collection.

This will make a huge difference for retailers. Some of the saved space may be allocated to fresh food areas, where people prefer to browse, sniff and taste real produce. Staff numbers may also fall, but assistants will not disappear. They will be shifted to areas such as fresh food, where customers WANT a human face - and opinion - about products.

Staple goods are the most likely to be bought from home. We may one day walk around a virtual store displayed on our TV, clicking buttons or even speaking an order down the wire. Delivery is a big hurdle, however. The cost - and danger in inner cities - could mean shoppers are still visiting food stores in the 21st century - even if they are in a very different form.

The high street will also survive, says Verdict. Fashion, gifts and household goods involve much browsing, comparison of prices, trying on , and demonstration. Electrical goods may continue to move into giant stores - probably on cheaper land around the fringes of towns. New activities may also emerge we cannot even imagine. Computers and by-products seem the most likely new giant, rivalling the factory outlets emerging today.

Much will depend on whether planners allow such uses to spread into green areas. Many retailers may be forced to use regenerated land closer to city centres, so factory outlets could replace the very factories that once produced goods which built the original high streets.

Deregulation of shopping hours will carry retailing even further into the realm of entertainment. Centres will be open for longer hours. This will raise costs and lead to staff cuts. But at the same time retailers will be under pressure to attract more customers, which will demand more restaurants, food courts, play areas and live entertainment.

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