Once a unique look at the variety that British towns offered across the country, a trip to another county’s high street today is now a bleak déjà vu of every other. Another Boots, New Look, EE store with the same window-dress, vinyl stickers, and unenthusiastic staff. The backdrop may change, with a looming church spire or historical monument, all set against a sombre swathe of corporate branding and to-let signs. The explosion of large retailers funded by venture capitalists has outpaced independent and small retailers, laying waste to towns stripped of their variety to become regurgitated clones of each other. The only survivors are historic market towns, protected by the economic benefit of tourism, who exploit the nostalgic charm of ‘ye olde’ shops and sell trinkets made in Taiwan.
The buzzword liberally banded around to classify the changing local landscape is gentrification. Favourably viewed as the renovation of deteriorating neighbourhoods, swathes of prodigious companies promise to invigorate towns on the assurance of a boom to the local economy through new housing, retail, and entertainment complexes. The reality of cutting-edge enterprise, however, comes at the cost of pricing out local commerce and demolishing memorable buildings in favour of purpose-built multiplexes. Regional heritage and culture are drained of significance as the local economy is syphoned into head offices in America. Towns whose names became synonymous with the trade they were established with, like Manchester and Axminster, known for quality household linen and carpet manufacture respectively, have had their lineage stripped from them in favour of corporate hegemony.
But the modern promise of gentrification may now be crumbling in response to the very trade it helped create. Threats looming from new and old platforms are paving the way for new retail industry. The demise of BHS, Toys-R-Us, and Maplin comes as a small victory for the independent homewares, play, and electrical retailers consumed by their monopoly of the market. The new arena of online retail has been attributed to some of the cause of the landslide of big business, set to take more corporates with it. Online has created a more convenient and more competitive venue to buy wares without driving anywhere or talking to anyone. Physical stores have become real-world catalogues for people to find inspiration for products, then go home and find it cheaper online. The benefits that online retail provides, like reviews, free transport, installation and removal, create a new arena of competition where big offline business cannot compete. The cost of location, customer-facing staff, signage, and visual marketing eats into profit margins that online doesn’t have to consider.
Retail moving online is not the only omen the digital space poses big brands. Their market of consumers is now a cohort of informed citizens, aided by information the internet provides. Medias proliferation through the internet has broken stories about the environmental cost of modern conveniences like single-use packaging, health scares against food production, brand scandals of how poorly they treat workers, and the reveal of just how much CEOs make. People now have access to the inner workings of a brand on their corporate websites, and can communicate brands on a one-on-one basis through Twitter and other social media. An increasingly aware purchasing demographic has ushered in a new buzzword; transparency.
Access to the Internet has forced brands to be completely open about sourcing, production and pricing. Studies show that over 60 percent of customers read online reviews and blogs before they make a purchase. With an increasingly conscious purchasing demographic, brands can no longer keep secrets from their consumers and must embrace a new business model built around radical clarity and honesty. Brands ushered in by the online retail movement utilise the platform to segment their place in the transparent market. Burgeoning new retailers like Oliver Cabell offer an in-depth breakdown of the cost of each component of the manufacture, from the price of the shoe sole to the cost of shipping and duty tax paid. When brands like these are on the fore, it seems unlikely that unless big business can offer such a level of transparency, they are set for a big fall.
But the proliferation of the internet and new technologies are also changing what we value. The continued demand on our lives that technology is taking has brought with it a craving for offline experiences that give us the opportunity to put down the screens, silence the home assistant, and get back in touch with the physical world. As big brands are trying to shoehorn technology into every space imaginable, like Waitrose’s wireless self-scan devices, the constantly out of order self-service machines, and McDonalds touch screen service podiums, customers have been desperately trying to eke away from the ever-growing technological realm. The revival of sign-painting, chalkboard paint and the evolution of vintage into analogue are just a few ways people are searching out a lifestyle away from pixels.
The unexpected rejection of technological advancement flies in the face of the very model that opened the gates for big business to proliferate. When these brands got big at the turn of the millennium, their mass-produced, clean lines and technological accessibility was synonymous with the advancement the turn of the century promised. This laid waste to the mom and pop stores that were common at that time and invited in the new, mass-produced culture of the future. But today, the Bauhaus-inspired mass production of goods is losing its place in our homes and experiences. Buying organic, fair trade and authentic is now a luxury many of us aspire to. Exclusivity and excessive packaging that once identified high-value products are now being actively rejected over authenticity and ethical quality; traits synonymous with the local, independent and authentic retail that big business forced out. Independent coffee shops are now flourishing in the wasteland of empty stores that the likes of Starbucks and Costa acquisitioned on their take over of our high streets, and butchers and grocers who survived the onslaught of Sainsburys and Tesco are now experiencing their first growth period in a decade.
With a customer base craving a more personal and identifiable retail experience, brands now seek to forge a more relatable connection with every shopper. Trying to capture the wholesome image, businesses are rebranding with a softer tone of voice, a grainer logo, and more experiential shopping. Sainsburys and Wilkos (adorably shortened from Wilkinsons due to its colloquial rename by customers) rebranded their budget own-brands to capture the sentiment of transparency, through puns. Logos have got softer edges, and a new focus on ethical trading has encouraged brands like H&M to label much of their clothing as ethically sourced. But the proliferation of branded stores means the connection between retailer and consumer is lost. The mass-production and low staff investment mean there is no differentiation between shopping in a Boots in Leeds than a Boots in Bournemouth. Some retailers like Waterstones and Paperchase are attempting to provide an in-house experience though cafes, but the guise of a warm welcome and lovingly prepared food is a thin veil in front of the corporate visual marketing.
As digital diminishes real-life social interaction, independent stores with a cohesive brand image both online and off, will emerge and change the way the retail world operates as big chains continue to downsize. The gap that is widening between online and physical stores is leaving behind space on high streets that is being filled by independents that don’t carry the cultural significance of mass production behind them. Online, the shift is being taken up by a burgeoning industry of decentralised, sharing economy networks that provides a platform, but removes themselves as the middleman between providers and receivers, as in Depop, Uber and Airbnb. Citizens with purchasing power are forcing the market to adapt to a better way of doing business, which will hopefully be a lasting shift in the retail industry. Now more than ever, the things people buy are microcosms of broader cultural trends.
Could this mean a resurrection of independent stores on high streets? Customer demand for higher standards, especially when it comes to issues of the environment, ethics and authenticity, makes for a wide gap in the market to be filled. But increasing rents as a result of low income in proportion to the price of living prices out entrepreneurial individuals who would rather own a store than create the newest app. And with big-ticket items being bought online at a lower price, can independents sustain themselves selling trinkets? The tsunami with which big businesses washed out high streets may leave the debris of Wetherspoons and virtual delis in its wake.