The thought receptacle

Stephen's mental dustbin

Tue, 29 Apr 2014

High streets

[I wrote this some time while I was living in Switzerland, probably in late 2012. I then edited it from a post-Switzerland perspective, but still didn't quite bother to post it.]

Recently, John Harris's article in the Guardian about the decline of the high street, and how perhaps to resist it, was trended into my view.

High streets are an emotive issue. People like them. I certainly do. However, I think John Harris's take is naive. It's not only big business that's working against high streets. Ordinary people are too. Resisting big business's influence on the high street by shoring up local support for independents is a losing strategy. It's better to take a step backwards and resist the underlying problems which give the same big businesses so much power—corporatism, unchallenged anticompetitive behaviour—than trying to fight the tide of consumer behaviour.

High streets are aesthetically appealing. They also foster individuality. Lots of small shops, run by diverse individuals, make for a heterogeneous collection, statistically highly likely to include its share of gems. Thriving high streets have character. Unfortunately, high streets are disadvantaged in two unavoidable ways: economically and transport-wise. Small shops will always be more expensive to run than a huge megastore. High streets are also (by my definition, at least) always centrally located, usually in the historic centre of a town. This sets up a classic problem: given the aspiration to keep road traffic out of town centres—a good one, I believe—people who might want to visit high street shops can't get there in their cars.

The comments on the Guardian article are interesting. They are remarkably pro-market for Guardian readership. They are also very pro-car. Of course, the ones claiming that the solution is simply to provide unlimited town-centre parking are also blinkered idiots, but I will return to that later.

What is a town centre anyway? Or rather, what should it be? I'd say it should be a pedestrian-friendly centre of work, culture and nightlife. It tends to be centre of public transportation. Should it also be a centre of shopping? Carrying shopping is one of the more defensible uses for a car, unlike travelling to work or for a night out. So, if town centres are to lose one of the aforementioned functions, I'd say shopping is one of the best ones to lose. I'm also reminded of the traffic queues that form in Cambridge every Saturday and Sunday... hundreds of people sat in their cars crawling towards the city centre car parks so that they can go to John Lewis et al. It was (and no doubt still is) a blight on the city. The cars literally blocked the way across town ... I would often want to cycle out west on weekday afternoons, and there was no route I could take that avoided the queues—which, of course, helpfully staggered themselves all over the width of the road, just to make cyclists' passage needlessly difficult. Even if you weren't trying to get somewhere by bike or car, they were still noisy, ugly and polluting.

So, would moving John Lewis (for example) to an out-of-town destination be the best solution? I don't believe so, although given the blight and timewastage of those traffic queues, it might be an improvement on the status quo. To reach any better alternative, we have to change the way shops work. It'd be nice if all those shoppers could come in by bike or public transport, experience a comfortable pedestrian-friendly high street environment, and peruse large and small shops alike. But then they wouldn't be able to take their bulky shopping home in their cars! Clearly, we need a new model of distribution: shop in-store, deliver to home.

Economies of scale make home delivery cheaper the more people use it. Given how many people seem to be driving in every Saturday/Sunday, there will be enough buying customers in any given residential locality for large stores to amortise delivery costs substantially. Of course, this is a more expensive model than pure mail-order operations like Amazon, because although you get delivery-side economies, you don't get the economies of scale of big distribution centres. But since shops need to be supplied anyway, to provide a browsing environment, the extra overhead is not that great—the same facilities that receive stock also have to be able to dispatch it, working like mini distribution centres. No doubt all this would push up costs a little, but not unaffordably.

Of course, implementing this is very hard, because it requires an investment of belief on the part of both consumers and shops. Neither one will change its ways without the other doing likewise, so it seems doomed to a chicken-and-egg stalemate. The best we can hope for is that some niche retailer pioneers the model and somehow breaks through into the public consciousness. John Lewis might be a good (okay, not-so-niche) option for that, because they already offer delivery. If they could only somehow discount delivery for people who don't use the car park, they might set about establishing the right patterns.

John Harris does make at least one reasonable point. Amazon et al get an unfairly good deal thanks to tax loopholes, and I'm all in favour of closing those. It some progress is happening on that front.

Several commenters make another good point. Independent shops are a heterogeneous bunch, and that includes their quality. Part of the value of chain stores—and it is value, much as it pains me—is their predictability. If you know you like the coffee from chain store X, you have a safe bet whichever town you're in. Having a common underlying organisation operating a large number of shops prevents those shops from repeating mistakes, so allows them to reach a given quality level faster. Of course, it also stifles innovation beyond that point, so can limit quality too. But chains often do compete in quality as well as price.

On that note, here's a peculiar anecdote to finish with: it's my impression, based on limited experience, that standards in independent shops seem significantly better in the US—despite its being home of the mega-mall and all sorts of gigantic chains. Is my impression accurate? I'm basing my experience on coffee shops, food outlets generally, and record shops. And in fairness, my experience mostly originates in big cities. Still, I'm scratching my head for the explanation.

As an aside, I first want to address another fallacy appearing there: “it's better on the Continent”. This is an appealing falsehood. As someone who recently spent a year living in a well-regarded part of the Continent (namely Lugano, Switzerland), I've become aware of the peculiar British tendency to mythologise the continent. There are good and bad examples of town centres wherever you go. In Lugano, there are markedly fewer independent shops than in equivalently-sized settlements in Britain. Satellite settlements have even less to offer. I lived in a place called Gentilino, of about 1500 people, a 2.5km walk from the historic centre of Lugano. The nearest shop selling any sort of food, except for a petrol station, is a 1.6km walk away from the village centre (and at a large difference in altitude). Other smaller settlements are very often similarly bereft. In general, this area of Switzerland has relatively little character in terms of independent establishments. This may or may not be representative of continental Europe as a whole, but we have no data to say one way or the oher. We can do without inventing a fictional Utopian “Continent”.

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