I woke up this morning to see and hear reports about the continuing demise of the British high street. According to the media, up to 30 high street chain stores are closing on a daily basis. These stores are being replaced by pawnbrokers, bookmakers and charity shops. Here is one perspective from the Independent newspaper – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/goodbye-toys-and-cards-hello-loans-and-bookies-8215751.html

It is clear that the challenges of the economic climate have had a significant effect on changing the face of the British high street. All organisations, whether they be in retail or not, are having to assess the effectiveness and feasibility of their operations. A cost focus has meant that underperforming parts of organisations have had to be streamlined – for a retailer, regrettably this means that their ‘footprint’ has had to be reduced where possible.

So exactly what are the causes of this – can it all just be blamed on the economy? In my opinion, the causes are as follows:

1. Spiralling business rates – this is definitely a significant economic factor. I live in Chester in the North West of England. The business rates (so I am led to believe) are exorbitant. For those of you who have been to Chester, it is a historic town with a very historic shopping centre with the world-famous ‘rows’ – a two tier high street (see picture below). The ‘rows’ used to be bustling and full of individual specialist retailers. It was wonderful. Today, not only are many of the units empty, those that are occupied are occupied by national chains that can still make the Chester stores work. Why? individual retailers simply cannot afford the rates – big out-of-town supermarkets and a huge outlet village have made the consumer think twice about where to do their shopping. If the town centre offers nothing ‘different’, why bother going……this leads me on to my second point….

2. Car parking – the bane of any shoppers life. Not only is it difficult to find somewhere to park, when you, you are expected to pay through the nose for it. Chester have implemented a ‘free after 3’ parking policy in some car parks. Personally, I will only visit the town centre when I know I can park for nothing. The policy works – but what about the rest of the working day. The consumer now has more choice than ever before. They can visit the big supermarkets or the outlet villages and park for nothing – anytime. They can literally buy anything they want from anywhere in the world from the comfort of their living room. Why would you pay to park in the town centre that offers nothing different? This leads me on to my third point…

3. Where is the WOW? More than ever before, consumers want an experience – a positive, memorable experience in everything they do. Recognising that fact, one needs to question what kind of ‘end to end’ experience do many of our high streets now offer? The experience starts with being able to access the high street (parking, walking, public transport etc..) and ends in much the same way. In the middle are a number of elements that make up the full end to end ‘customer journey’. What kind of journey does your high street offer you? Today it is not great – queues of traffic to get to overpriced car parks. You then walk past empty shops and often dirty streets. You might be able to dine in a fast food restaurant before walking past a gang of youths on street corner to get back to your car before the parking ticket runs out. I am being a bit extreme here, but I am guessing you get the point.

A customer experience specialist in the US, Bruce Temkin, once taught me that there are three elements to any experience:

When you think about these elements for the high street, it does make it clear why there is a struggle. Is the British high street functional any more? Does it provide the basic things that the consumer wants? Is it accessible? It is certainly not as accessible as other options now available to the consumer. And the third one is the key one – how does shopping in the high street make the consumer feel? What is the emotional connection with the consumer? What is the consumer going to remember about their day out?

I think it is pretty clear-cut why the high street is suffering. The only way to help address the issues is for the key stakeholders to start working together – central and local government; retailers; local people – unless the high street can start to compete from a functional and accessible perspective, the only emotional element of the experience that the consumer will remember is not likely to be positive.

As always, I welcome any comments on this or any other of my blogs.