Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron has made the bold move of hiring retail guru and television personality Mary Portas to help save the UK high street. Appointed in May 2011 to lead an independent review into the future of the high street, Portas has spent seven months researching the matter, and her findings were published in a report on December 13th 2011.
Mary Portas has had a long career in the retail industry, and was a member of the Harvey Nichols board at the tender age of 30. She has since founded a successful retail consultancy and forged a niche for herself as a television retail expert with shows Mary Queen of Shops for the BBC and Mary Portas: Secret Shopper for Channel Four.
Portas latest leading role is as high street advisor to a worried David Cameron, trusted with the task of restoring the great British high street to its former bustling glory.
Yet despite coming up with a 28 point plan to revitalise the high street, Portas herself warns that the days of the traditional high street, with its butchers, bakeries and florists are long gone. Instead, she advises that we learn to look at our high streets differently, as prime places to create opportunities for creativity, enjoyment, learning, socialising, well-being and health.
She says, as quoted in the Daily Mail, ‘The big boom years are over. We will never go back to those retail shops we had. The future is not more shopping.’
‘I am not going to be nostalgic about our high streets as they will never be what they were, ‘ she continues.
‘We need to stop seeing our high streets as just shops. We now need to get people back into our high streets and that requires creating a place that is about enjoyment, creativity, learning, socialising, wellbeing, health.’
This seems like sound advice from a woman who was awarded a doctorate in 2009 in recognition of her contribution to the retail sector. After all, a stroll down a typical modern day high street is a sorry sight. Instead of the traditional shops of just twenty years ago – such as greengrocers, butchers, clothing shops and florists, you are now faced with rows of takeaways, discount stores and pawn brokers. That is, if there are any traders on the high street at all. Many shops are now empty and boarded up eyesores.
Of course, many are quick to blame out of town supermarkets and internet shopping for the problem of our diminished high streets. Yet the fact is, if customers are offered the same goods for less elsewhere, then they will go elsewhere to buy them. And why shouldn’t they? The ‘Save Our High Streets’ ethos is very admirable, but in these tough economic times shoppers, in the UK and the Republic of Ireland alike, have to save their pounds and their euros wherever they can.
When customers buy their goods and services online, it is likely that they will save on the high street price. Further savings can of course be had with the money off voucher codes, special offers, discount codes and daily deals that can be found quite easily when shopping online.
A quick browse of Moneysaver.ie and shoppers can quickly find discount codes for popular etailers such as Tesco, Amazon, Play, Expedia, Zavvi, and many fashion brands. Not only is internet shopping cheaper for shoppers, but it is also more convenient than traipsing the high street as there are no parking charges to pay, no crowds to battle, no bags to carry and you can shop at leisure from the comfort of your own home.
It seems that Mary Portas is deserving of her accolades as a retail expert as her report shows that she understands that, in a modern world, the function of the high street has to change. As it can’t complete with internet shopping on many levels, high street shopping may have to become a thing of the past, and our high streets instead utilised as meeting places and community hubs.
The suggested re-invention of the high street, with shops converted into crèches, youth clubs, centres for the arts, coffee shops and community town halls, may be sound advice for the UK Prime Minister, and one which he should take heed of and set about instigating.
After all, a report is all very well but it needs to be followed with action in order to give high streets a new, but certainly improved, lease of life.