Is the High Street making a comeback?

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

We are being told by many that the High Street, or Main Street, as our American cousins call it, in its last throws. But is this really the case?

highstreet1Despite behemoths like Starbucks and Amazon, the number of independent bookstores, coffee shops, and other businesses appear to be growing and this is a good thing indeed.

We all know that the likes of Wal-Mart, Target, the large supermarkets in the K such as Tesco, ASDA (part of Wal-Mart) and Sainsbury's, and especially Amazon are killing the smaller businesses on the High Street businesses but this is, thankfully, only partly true. Those retailing behemoths have devastated a lot of communities across the America and the UK, and they’re still growing. But the good news is that despite the big chains, also in the field of coffee shops and such, the small ones are still holding on and, in many cases, are increasing.

One surprising comeback to the High Street, in many places and countries, despite Amazon's impact, are the local independent bookstores and the more the merrier, I say. And the same must be the case for other shops too, whether greengrocers, hardware stores or what-have-you.

Even in the age of e-books and Amazon, independents are growing: For the last four years, their numbers and total sales have grown, despite the recession. In 2009 there were 1,651 independent bookstores in the United States. Today there are more than 1,900. And e-books, in my opinion, are not an answer for the great majority and neither will they do anything to save trees and the Planet. The opposite rather on both counts. But that is another discussion point and one that I have covered before more than once.

In order to keep revitalizing the High Street we all, as consumers, need to frequent it more and local authorities have to do their part by making the High Street more accessible in way of parking of cars and bicycles for is there is no way to leave the car or bike then people will not come to the High Street.

Shop owners too have to do their bit and that can also be the provision of bicycle parking, so to speak, and much more, in order to attract customers. Coffee shops must offer secure and free wi-fi for use by customers and other services too could come the equation such as, as the coffee shops of old, being a meeting hub for people as well as a center for alternative postal services.

Hardware stores also could offer services to customers, via “subcontractors”, such as sharpening of garden tools and others, giving other small businesses a link to the greater community while taking a small cut as a facilitation fee.

Bookstores aren’t the only retail sector where independents are expanding. Local coffee shops have grown faster than Starbucks. Bakers and specialty food stores are thriving. Independent pharmacies and pet, fabric, and stationery stores are growing too. At least in the United States.

How do they compete with the giants? One factor is the “buy local” ethic and in 2012 sales at independent businesses in cities with “buy local” campaigns grew 8.6 percent while those that did not have such campaigns grew 3.4 percent.

Independents are also capitalizing on their ability to win loyalty by hosting events, such as author talks at bookstores. And bookstore owners have learned to feature high margin items such as note-cards, toys, and chocolate.

There are many more things that local shops can do to get customers come through their doors and keeping the High Street alive and all it takes is some deep thought as to what additional services could be offered.

Independent bookstores could also help butting artists and craftspeople to find an outlet even though it might not be books and in addition to that the acceptance, or even the creation is not in existence already, of local currencies can also go a long way here.

What can we do, as consumers, besides shopping at their stores, to help our local retailers? We can't do much about the big boxes’ ability to get major discounts from suppliers and pummel the public with advertising. But we can protest when local governments give tax abatement and free land to the retail giants. Indiana, for example, gave Amazon $11 million to locate five warehouses in the state, and we must also campaign so that those large retailers actually pay the tax the owe and not let them get away with tax avoidance, as the UK government has allowed Amazon and others to do.

Another great way for local retailers to get custom come through their doors, and hopefully become loyal shoppers, is to, and this is an easy thing, offer free tap water for those that wish to refill their water bottles. It has been tried and it seems to work.

So don’t think that the High Street is down and out for the count. As the “buy local” ethic continues to gain momentum, as stores get creative in using their local advantage, and as online sales lose their tax advantage, the lights may again shine bright on the High Street. But, mush of it will be down to us, as consumers, as to whether the High Street will get up again to fight another day or not.

© 2013