Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Rejuvenating the High Street

In the UK the centres of many of our villages, towns and cities are beginning to look derelict as failing retailers close down and the shop windows are boarded up. Presumably it is the same in many other nations.

But does it have to be like this?

The cost structure of business is changing as energy, transport and raw materials become more expensive, and as governments factor in environmental costs previously ignored by accountants. Recycling, repair and upgrading are becoming more viable than planned obsolescence and disposal. The cost of manufacturing in the developing world is increasing while new small-scale manufacturing, such as 3D printing, can now be bought by small businesses. In some cases technology allows a single item to be produced as cheaply in a one off run as in a mass production run, making bespoke production more economically feasible.

Since 2011, when this post was first published, it seems to this author that there has been a growing demand for more personal service and guidance by sellers of goods and services. There is a feeling that human beings are under growing pressure to submerge their humanity in a vast buy/sell machine running on information.
At the same time artificial intelligence and deep learning are making it possible for persons to do more with machines than either
person or machine could previously do alone and perhaps for some tasks even genuine (i.e. not fake) face to face or voice to voice human interaction could become more frequent. 

Here are some possible businesses that could inhabit our High Streets in the future, even the near future:
  • Goods sampling stores. Online advertising could be complemented by local stores for sampling and handling the goods pictured on the web. Sometimes images and text are not enough to warrant a buying decision. E.g. certain expensive craft ware needs to be handled, chairs sat on, tools gripped, fabrics felt. The goods would not  necessarily be sold from these high street emporiums, although terminals for ordering could be available on the premises as an alternative to ordering from home. These sampling places could be set up and run on a national scale, having a High Street presence in much the same way as chain stores do now and with an emphasis on personal interaction. Online sellers would buy space in them to increase their sales and if human intervention could be used to simplify returning of and refunding of unwanted goods this would be a bonus.

  • Cobblers. These would combine bespoke manufacture, crafting and sale of a pair of shoes on the premises. The customer would choose a general design from the web or on the premises, with interpersonal advice if sought,  their feet would be accurately scanned to produce a mould by 3D printing (this technology is already available) and a skilled cobbler would craft a perfectly fitting shoe around this according to the customer’s wishes. The shoe maker would buy in the usual leather, plastic, rubber etc. in bulk. The shoes would be expensive, made to last and able to be repaired or partially recycled in the same business.
  • Tailors. The customer would be greeted by a member of staff, shown a selection of materials to feel and choose from, then enter a booth to be scanned and to view images of herself or himself in various pre-selected outfits. The suit or pullover or dress would be accurately made to measure on site and at lower cost than in the tailors of old, yet the customer would directly interact with a person skilled in giving advice, not a machine interface. The process would not always be fast enough to avoid a second visit to collect the purchase but it would be worth it for those who feel clothes are important.

  • Furniture makers and sellers. A skilled carpenter has at his or her disposal computer-assisted tools and lathes which enable him to quickly construct a whole item of furniture (not just part of it, as on a production line). The customer would specify the size and style from computer images, as well as the type of wood and the finish from actual samples. The furniture would either be delivered in a day or so or it could be collected. Again, human interaction would be an important part of the service.

  • Charity shops with enterprise booths. Oxfam, World Vision, Salvation Army, Christian Aid, Hospice shops etc. are already prominent on our High Streets. This is an obvious trend which small businesses could both help and profit from by having small booths within the shops. Each would benefit from footfall generated by the other and the charity could recoup some of its leasing costs by charging whoever occupied the booth (e.g. someone selling home-baked cakes or local arts and crafts or cutting keys etc.).

  • IT centres for upgrading, recycling and repair. These could be a response to the rapid change in IT plus the need to minimise the fallout of waste as products are discarded with each new generation of mobile phone, tablet computer, touch pad, PC, printer, router, modem etc.  (The beginnings of this kind of enterprise has already become apparent since the original version of this post appeared in 2011.) Customers would have access to on-the-spot expertise and advice as well as able to book home visits or be put in contact with independent local experts. Such centres would be linked into a national recycling and disposal infrastructure. Hopefully future IT will be designed to be more upgradeable and compatible and longer lasting.

  • Training units. As western nations adapt to new kinds of business and technology, and as the median age of populations increases, new skills will have to be taught to young and old alike. A lot of this could be done on a modular basis - partly online from home but also by personal tutoring or face-to-face tuition, individually or in small groups. This will need premises so why not have shop-sized units in the High Street which could be flexibly rented by the training organisations, whether privately or publicly financed?

I am sure there are many examples of how with imagination we could better utilise our town centres. Town councils and churches could play a role. This posting is to stimulate discussion on how to help them thrive and make the High Street an interesting place to walk down. 

John Sears
Author, 2077: Knights of Peace