The long-forecast “death of the High Street” jumped closer today — in the UK at least — with two back-to-back announcements from major chains.

Jessops, the country’s major camera chain, went into administration last week, and died this week, after suppliers and management couldn’t make a deal. The company’s sales were flatlining, at around 230 million pounds pa, carrying 60 million pounds in debt. The 192-store chain closed so fast that those folks who still bring their photos in for developing won’t be able to pick them up — there’s no one there to hand them out.

That was a wobble, but the real hit came today, with HMV — the last CD and DVD retailer on the strip — announcing it was going into administration. The 293-store chain has been in trouble for some time — it issued so many notices it looked like “Profit Warning” was the title of Adele’s next album — and with a 10% fall in December sales, a 1p share price and a 36 million pound loss, it appears suppliers have pulled the plug. Everyone knew it was coming, but most people simply had a mental block about it.

With the passing of HMV goes the record store experience, a habit stretching back decades, across generations — the thrill of discovering music in adolescence. People could take previous collapses — Our Price, Zavvi, Tower Records — as well as other chains like Comet (electronics), Clinton Cards, and JJB, the largest sports retailer. Now everyone is nervously watching Waterstones, the last major book chain — Borders and Books Inc long gone — which reversed out of HMV two years ago, and is maintaining profit but with steadily falling sales, despite a rather desperate deal with Amazon Kindle for an in-store sales arrangement.

Further down the line, whole categories of stores — such as newsagents — are feeling the chill, according to a report by recovery specialists Begbie Traynor. Nor are the empty stores created by these collapses being refilled. In the UK, one in six High Street shops is empty. Since these closures tend to be grouped, the picture is grimmer than the statistics suggest — in poorer places, one in three shop fronts is closed down, causing the street to fall below critical mass, thus driving yet more people away.

But why should the troubles of UK retailers matter to Australians? After all, the US downtown collapsed ages ago and the shockwaves didn’t register. However, there were specific reasons for the US collapse: “white flight” from the cities to the suburbs, high car ownership and huge sweetheart deals with mall developers. The UK High Street should have been more resilient — car ownership is lower, urban density greater, and malls are still the exception rather than the rule.

“Given such an epochal event, we should take it as an opportunity, not an inevitable decline — not merely to refashion urban spaces, but to diminish the centrality of shopping to our lives …”

The fact that it too is dying — and that town centres in places like Italy, with an unparalleled commitment to localism, are in trouble — suggests a brute truth: the High Street in its current form cannot survive anywhere, and there is no point trying to keep it alive in that way. Australia can learn from the mistakes being made elsewhere to prepare for the time when the crunch comes closer to home.

The first lesson might be not to go into denial, as the UK is doing. Here, everything from the wet weather — yes, so unprecedented — to bad management is being blamed for the decline. It’s true that some chains had unforced errors — Jessops went big into digital cameras just as mobile phone cameras became good enough for most needs — but well managed or badly managed they are going under. In the pre-internet days, you couldn’t really lose selling camera stuff or electronics no matter how badly you managed things. These days, no amount of ingenuity would guarantee survival. Not only is online selling taking over, but the very objects once sold — cameras, newspapers and so on — are themselves disappearing. The deep structural changes in our life brought on by the digital revolution have to be understood to be dealt with.

Failing to do so brings on the second error: believing that a bit of ingenuity and lateral thinking within the realm of selling and shopping will work. In the UK, the Cameron government commissioned Mary Portas — a former Harvey Nichols supremo turned brand consultant, and, inevitably, reality TV star — to advise on revitalising the UK High Street. It was the archetypal Cameron move: a PR government hiring a PR person to change the appearance rather than investigate the reality of the situation. Portas came up with 28 recommendations for “revitalising the High Street”: pop-ups, combined shop/cafes, niche branding, blahblah, many of which were perfectly sensible.

But by and large they would only work for one individual High Street, and help it to grab business from other high streets. The report had nothing to say about the wider problem of demand collapse brought about by online retailing, malls, etc. The same was true of another, more searching report by the “Red Tory” think tank Res Publica, which followed in the wake of a “village champion”, Tim Nicoll, who used a Yorkshire community as a laboratory for reversing retail decline. The solution? An artisanal foods industry and, yawn, village branding. The whole thing was part of, yes, a reality show — SOS Village. Thus is Britain governed.So the third and most fundamental error is to believe that there is some magic formula by which that demand could be brought back. Once you abandon that, a set of wider questions can be asked. Why do we need a High Street at all? Why should it be a contiguous line of shops? And why should shopping define the centre of a community anyway? The High Street is, after all, a recent invention. Until the 18th century, villages and neighbourhoods tended to have a far more scattershot and haphazard arrangement. The main street would not necessarily be the High Street, and certainly not the huge line of shops we understand it to be today.

Rising prosperity and a middle class in the 19th century increased the number of people who bought stuff, rather than making it or growing for themselves, or having such done for them. What had been “stores” — repositories that sold things — became “shops”, focused on display and presentation. Arcades were developed. Zoning laws differentiated residential and retail spaces. And until the 1970s, that was how it was.

Then the malls came — ironically Victor Gruen, the inventor of the modern shopping mall, intended it as a multiple civic space, with government offices, schools, apartments, etc, to mimic the feel of European towns, reproduced on the US prairie — and the huge supermarkets. Local councils, often as not bribed with consultancies, if not 50s in a brown bag, gave developers tax breaks, parking waivers and the like, thus stacking the deck against the High Street. But that merely changed the composition of the centre. And then cometh the Amazon.

Given such an epochal event, we should take it as an opportunity, not an inevitable decline — not merely to refashion urban spaces, but to diminish the centrality of shopping to our lives, not least as preparation for the likely shift we will have to make in the way we live in decades to come. To have every community everywhere defined by having a group of shops at its centre is the triumph of bourgeois civilisation, the expression of life as a matter of buying and selling. Now that it has started to break down, we should take the opportunity to refashion the places we live, more radically. We should simply abandon the idea that the high/main street should be a row of shops, and start to see it as a place of multiple uses.

“But essentially life, free activity, has to be returned to the High Street, and that means rethinking social institutions — which are changing anyway.”

The default setting to date, especially in Australia, has been to convert shop fronts to residential use. But while you’d want that as a part of a transformed High Street, it’s that very transformation that makes people desperate to hold onto shops at all cost, because the effect of residentialisation can be so deadening. Nor can it be done with culture alone, in the form of galleries, pop-ups, etc, though that would be part of the new mix. But essentially life, free activity, has to be returned to the High Street, and that means rethinking social institutions — which are changing anyway.

For example, if universities are effectively being decloistered by online learning, why not create study centres in former shops — places where people could gather to work together, use equipment they wouldn’t have at home, etc? The same could be done with the rising number of makerspaces, which have developed out of hackerspaces, and attempt to rejoin manual activity back to mental activity — as equipment banks, places for classes and so on (some of this is highlighted by Marcus Westbury’s Renew Australia project). Small-scale indoor growing would be a further re-orientation.

The ultimate would be the physical reshaping of the centre, with small-scale demolitions — rather than large-scale urban clearing — to reshape and reflow the whole idea of a central street. Rather than replace it with grim pedestrianisation or deathful plazas, these should be working, living spaces — modular urban farms, small sports fields, etc. Whether this sort of thing can be contemplated on a wide scale before a crisis really hits remains to be seen — “the shops” is such a default setting as a centre that there’s not much that would dislodge it until the model fails absolutely. But there is no point in not making a start.

Myself, I will be sorry to watch the inevitable shift. There’s nothing like towns where small shops are still the basic medium of daily life, and the place has a true centrality. Indeed cities like that, where the lost glories of window design is preserved, have a magical feel, something out of the stories and imaginings of childhood. Porto, in Portugal, I recall as making an art of it — a line of stationery shops, climbing up a steep hill, each having created mini-tableaux with the pens, notebooks and office paraphernalia on sale, one having suspended them in a giant floating mobile, another having arranged them in the form of a battle, black and blue, against red and green.

Such efforts are worth more than a hundred public sculptures, a living culture. But they are going, they will all go, and we are no more clued in to what’s next than a little dog listening earnestly to a gramophone.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey