We must have really fallen out of love with our towns. Over the years we’ve allowed far too many of them to fade and we seem to have lost any desire to keep them alive at all, preferring instead to shop at the local shopping mall at the edge of town, or simply to order online.
The sickness at the heart of our communities, this gentle entropy, has infected cities, towns and villages right across the world as we lose interest in our town centres with their concrete car parks and one way streets. We have starved them of the oxygen they need to survive, that is us: regular visits from a loyal community where we meet friends and colleagues for coffee, lunch or just a spot of window shopping.
So many of our towns are little more than a sad sprinkling of charity stores, mobile phone shops and of course the discount furniture store with the perennial sale of ugly stuff we never wanted in the first place. Far too many once proud public libraries and community centres stand abandoned as unloved symbols of the drain on the public purse. Extreme cases of the disease in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, have given rise to a new form of porn: ruin porn, where bleakly beautiful collapsed ceilings in Victorian theatres and the peeling paint corridors of a care home have become the artsy backdrop to photo shoots and pop videos. Decay can look so alluring on video or in a coffee table book.
However, the good people of these towns are not cooped up inside all day for fear of venturing out onto the abandoned streets. They have not given up on shopping nor are they sitting at their laptops ordering everything online. Shopping is still central to their lives, it’s just that they choose to spend their time and money at a Tesco or a Walmart, or drive to their nearest shopping centre where it is warm, dry and welcoming, where they can park their cars without fear of fines or being towed and where they can meet friends for a sensibly priced coffee. And who can blame them?
Rose tinted retail spectacles tell us that we lost the local butcher, the baker and the friendly greengrocer but in reality our high streets were littered with estate agents, mobile phone shops, discount footwear and poor quality chain-store bakeries. A big, warm all embracing Walmart with a discount breakfast will obviously win when that’s the choice. We are a very logical species.
But despite all of this I believe we should learn to love the recession. It may have devastated far too many of our high streets but above all it has made us consider exactly what our town centres are for and this has to be a good thing in the long run.
We all, retailers and consumers alike, need to remind ourselves of some basic truths before we can start to put things right: a shopping trip was never an expression of feeling flush, but rather an expression of feeling good and the job of retailers is, above all, to make us feel good. If retail is about seducing us to buy things we don’t really need, but that make us feel better, then we will need more emotional persuasion when times are tough, not less. Clever retail design is critical in making us feel good and brands that avoid investing in their spaces are in danger of losing our respect in the long term.
Shopping is pretty much what we do when we’re not working or sleeping and it answers a completely different set of values than it did a few years ago. Our high streets must be seen for what they really are: not a ragtag string of useful shops but a delicate eco- system at the heart of our community that must be nurtured by customers and local authorities alike. Lacklustre stores create lacklustre communities.
Our shopping streets and centres must make us feel wanted and safe, give us a sense of community, give us places to meet friends and family, be the venue for our food festivals and fashion shows. Stores should join in the fun with themed local promotions, cooking demos, tie-ins with schools and hospitals, and with an inspired calendar of events, tastings, exhibitions and launches that make us feel that if we don’t go out, we are missing out. Local retail desperately needs to raise its game. Put simply, shops should be run by those that truly love shopping.
To justify my role on this planet I always say, retail really matters. After all, it’s the engine of our economy. If we stay at home, make our own clothes and grow our own vegetables the economy will surely die. Our stores are there to encourage us politely to keep the economy moving and if we make sure our stores, shopping centres and high streets are exciting enough, then we might actually enjoy shopping the world out of this crisis.
The job for global retail then is to inspire us all and help kick start the great, big, greedy, capitalist machine back into action. The crash has even clarified the role of online retail. If it’s stuff you want then the Internet is brimming with it. Shops are there because we want to do things. We want to get out and see people and try things on and taste things and be treated with respect. And then we want to sit down for a while and watch the world go by. Simple really.