Opinion: The High Street Is Dead…Long Live the Retail Park!

Retail park by crabchickThe high street, as we know it, is in its death throes and I, for one, will not be mourning this loss. The reason for its demise is not, as many may think, the capitalist bad boys of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s et al. but the refrigerator. Yes, you heard me correctly, the humble fridge. My grandparents didn’t own a fridge for most of my mother’s childhood. My grandmother walked to the nearest town (just under 2 miles away) most days, except Sunday, and then back again with her shopping. She would deliberately plan and buy different food for Sunday to account for a lack of means to store perishables.

Women were not freed from this daily task until refrigerators became widely affordable, which meant women were able to get jobs instead. However, in households where all the adults work, the shopping can realistically only be done on fewer days of the week, ergo the food must be stored for longer periods of time. In family households, that’s more shopping than can be physically carried home. Once one has done this large shop, one can only realistically get it home in a car and one must have space to take all that shopping directly to the car. Retail parks – built in newly developed wide, flat spaces – make that infinitely more comfortable. My local high street is partially cobbled and on a fairly steep hill; I could push a trolley neither up nor down it.

In the suburbs, retail parks suit how we transport and store our food in the modern age. That is an undeniable fact and the sooner we acknowledge that fact and move on, the sooner we can rehabilitate our high streets for different purposes. Almost all the units above the shops on my local high street are vacant office spaces. Councils should be encouraged to change the zoning of high streets from purely commercial areas to mixed retail/residential sites. Most high streets are located near to the town train station, making them an ideal place to put flats. This would not only help ease this country’s chronic housing problem but would also benefit the shops remaining on the high street.

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  • I’m a little confused by this article; the primary purpose of the High Street hasn’t been buying food for over 60 years (if not longer). Our High Street (both in my local town and my local village) is booming, after a brief recession-orientated blip, and it’s the same across at least the bulk of London and the Home Counties.

  • i would argue the city centre is making a comeback with new developments such as Cabot (Bristol) or Trinity (Leeds). The affluent young are also shunning the suburbs for city centre living. I would argue the demise of the high street is down to access not the refrigerator. Large purchases, food shopping (or even a lot of little shopping items) are not compatible with public transport and should you be willing to pay NCP £7 an hour to park often you can’t get close enough to get any benefit!

  • matt (Bristol) 12th Nov '14 - 12:32pm

    Er, actually, for vulnerable, impoverished or older people with limited storage and limited mobility, the High Street can still be for buying food. The drive towards malls and retail parks continually further impoverishes such people, who increasingly live on the margins, and because typically they do not buy in large amounts they do not benefit form a food-retail culture that incentivises buying in bulk.

  • matt (Bristol) 12th Nov '14 - 12:39pm

    “Most high streets are located near to the town train station, making them an ideal place to put flats”

    Oh, dear. I can really tell which consitutency you come from. Beeching didn’t happen to Surrey Heath, did he?

  • The real problem for a lot of retail outlets are high ground rent and lack of parking. When you combine lots of shops with adequate parking space it really doesn’t matter if its in a town or out of town. Leicester’s Highcross is pretty much always packed. The supposed death of the high street ignores cut price sports shops, Primark, pound shops and McDonalds etc., which points to the other problem. A lot of people don’t have the disposable incomes needed to regenerate smaller business. Inner city populations tend to have lower incomes than suburban populations which means town centres favour companies that can sell cheap.

  • Matt Hemsley 12th Nov '14 - 1:56pm

    This article confused me as well. Of course, over time society changes and we can just cling to the halcyon days of the past (rarely where they that good); but out of town retail stores are hardly the future; or necessarily popular aspects of modern life. We planned for them (not everywhere, of course), and made it easier for people to use them. It was poor planning by the state that encouraged businesses out of town.

    I’m not sure if the author favours out of town retail park shopping, but it has clear disadvantages. Not least in the costs passed on to people in getting to and from these establishments, whilst also limiting competition and choice (depending on which megastore got in first).

    High Streets – of course – need to change. They need to cope with the online revolution and offer different or specialist products and services. They need to be pleasant places for people to be, spend time and come back to often (that largely means severe restrictions on car use, and improving pedestrian and cyclist facilities) and we need to find ways to ensuring a variety of shops.

    As mentioned above, sky high business rates are hurting high streets probably more than anything else. However, and endless quest for more (and free) parking is futile and will achieve nothing.

  • matt (Bristol) 12th Nov '14 - 1:56pm

    George, I know you live in that neck of the woods, and I am pretty sure we are both talking about the Beeching Report of 1963 but I don’t call altering the shape of the junction at Ash Vale a major railway closure.

    Large parts of the country – North, East and West – lost most or all of their railway connectivity in the last half of the last century.

    Sara’s blithe assumption that most high streets have an adjacent ‘town train station’ is pure London and South East, being used to having both a decent infrastructure and a well-heeled population. It risks making everyone else sick and is no way to have a debate about a national trend.

    I admit I used to think like that, before I moved away from the Surrey Heath area (where I grew up).

    I agree with you about JSA completely, you are making the same point as me.

  • Tony Greaves 12th Nov '14 - 3:28pm

    If you want to see local town centres that are neither dead nor dying come to Colne and Barnoldswick (both in Pendle).

    Barlick has just won one of the top awards in the Great British High Street competition. Colne and Barlick both won Gold and best in their class in the North West in Bloom awards this year. Barlick’s Switch-on Saturday is this coming weekend. Colne’s Christmas Event and Food Festival is on the 29th.

    You won’t find many empty shops in either town, and both have lots of new small businesses in the small “Pennine” shops that line the main streets. Lots of top quality cafes and coffee shops as well as “boutique” types shops as the Observer described them through its London eyes. Colne has two traditional arcades, one of them (a former near-derelict Co-op emporium type building) recently completely refurbished by Pendle Councils’ enterprise and regeneration company.

    These are orking class former textile towns where the Leeds and Liverpool Canal crosses the Pennine watershed, with middle-class estates and villages around. The basic trade is still people (old and young) who can’t easily get to the edge of town supermarkets but there are now more convenience shoppers on their way home from work, and a more specialist and often more up-market clientele for the “social and boutique” offers (someone higher up this thread – it’s not just a Home Counties phenomenon!) And a growing number of visitors from further afield who are discovering these super little towns as nice places to spend an afternoon. Free parking as well!

    It’s been hard work over many years, a lot of it by Liberal Councillors in both places. But the traders lead the way – if there are no businesses there is no high street. And lots of local people who love and care about their towns and take part in all the events that help to promote the sense of belonging and community and stimulate business. All working together in lots of different ways.

    Dead or dying, or even declining? No way!

    Tony Greaves
    Councillor in “Bonnie Colne Upon the Hill” – and proud of it.

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Nov '14 - 3:54pm

    I hate retail parks – they’re all pretty much the same.

    None shall be enslaved by conformity!

  • Martin Land 12th Nov '14 - 4:20pm

    We have a new cinema in the centre of our town. Cineworld said clearly that into cinemas were a much better bet now than cinemas in out of town retail parks. Had this article been written ten years ago I might have agreed. But this seems very out of date.

  • I don’t think Sainsbury’s or Tesco would agree with the author of this piece. Both are cancelling projects, especially out of town ones, in response to changing habits. We are doing smaller but more frequent shops which, apparently, makes us entirely typical.

  • “Most high streets are located near to the town train station, making them an ideal place to put flats. This would not only help ease this country’s chronic housing problem but would also benefit the shops remaining on the high street.”

    But the brownfield land, in the large quantities and plots the LibDems will need in-order to build all those homes it says need to be built, is to be found on the retail parks… A first step to the redevelopment of retail parks would be to set their business rates at the same level as the High St.

  • Tony Dawson 12th Nov '14 - 6:13pm

    All retail is currently suffering from e-trade competition: both town centre and retail park. Before that, however, town centre suffered compared to retail park because of two things largely:

    (a) no suitably-large shops with good rear loading bay access for supplies in great volume available in town centres.

    (b) congestion and parking charge issues for motorists wanting to shop.

  • Peter Andrews 12th Nov '14 - 8:05pm

    Is this article in a time warp from about 10 years ago? There is a reason supermarkets have been investing in small stores in local high streets in recent years, because a lot of people have switched from the big weekly shop at the supermarket shed to more smaller shopping trips locally.

    Our local high street is having a successful revival with a butchers, greengrocers and two bakers all within a minutes walk of each other. As well as 4 (yes that is 4) small to medium supermarkets

  • Far from the Hight Street dying, it’s the retail parks and out of town shopping centres that face the big danger. Why go to a retail park or an out of town shopping centre when you can shop online instead? The answers to that are rapidly diminishing as online shopping becomes more popular and more convenient. The High Street, by contrast, is seeing a revival because it offers something else – the quick convenient local shop and also many places to meet friends and socialise.

    10 years ago perhaps the future looked like it might be that one in this post. But we’ve moved on from that and it’s a much more High Street friendly looking future now.

  • Maria Pretzler 12th Nov '14 - 9:11pm

    I am just shocked that a number of people have said that only ten years ago the future still looked a bit like the situation described in this article. Really? Just ten years ago? Surely, the undesirability of too many out-of-town shopping centres has been clear for longer than that – and the idea that planning should mainly be for the convenience of people with cars seemed a bit oldfashioned even in the 90s?

    That said, here in Swansea, the message still hasn’t arrived. I live in hope that eventually we’ll catch up with the late 20th century even here.

  • @ Thomas Long

    Does the term “High Street” mean the street called named High Street or does it mean town centre shopping? If it means town centre then food shopping in the town centre has not been dead for over 60 years. I remember my mother buying fruit and veg from market stalls in a town centre less than 20 years ago. I did it myself less than 30 years ago. While 50 years ago my mother shopped at a local butcher and grocers and this was done mostly once a week. About 40 years ago with the opening of supermarkets she shopped in the town centre. I suppose that she didn’t really start shopping out of town for her food shopping until about 30 years ago, but still with some in town food shopping.

    @ Paul Howden

    I remember my sister and I both having three or four bags of food shopping on the bus. I expect that some people still do use the bus for food shopping. If I didn’t have my car then I could go to the out of town supermarket on the bus and I have done it in the past.

    @ Simon Oliver and Mark Pack

    I wonder how much trouble you take when buying meat, fruit and veg with selecting what you wish to buy. There is no way I would want to have to put up with what is selected if I was using internet shopping for these items.

    @ George Potter

    Last week when I purchased a loaf locally I paid 30 pence more than if I had purchased it at the out of town supermarket I use. The milk was twice as much. So if I had purchased two loaves and 8 pints of milk (which I do every week) I would have spent £2.60 more, which would cover the £2.50 you suggested it would cost to get to the out of town supermarket. Just think what I save on the total of my food shop every week.

  • matt (Bristol) 13th Nov '14 - 9:44am

    George, I will freely admit this is a digression that outs me as a trainspotter, but Beeching did not touch Surrey Heath in terms of infrastructure. Every passenger station that was there in 1962 is still there and still operating.

    You are right about Surrey in general, and I don’t contest this. But still it is a fact universally acknowledged that the commuter-belt South-East has the best access to the railway infrastructure in the country, overall.

    But yes, Surrey Heath does not have every town with a train station.

    So why the author feels able to right as if every town everywhere has railway access and its High Street can be turned ovr to profitable residential development on this basis is still a long way beyond me.

  • Tsar Nicolas 13th Nov '14 - 11:19am

    Out of town retail is part of what James Howard Kunstler has called ‘the geography of nowhere.’

    They are, like much of suburban sprawl, inappropriate for a world where cheap, abundant energy for transport is no longer available. Walkable communities with shopping facilities, not ones way out of town and accessible by car, will be the future in a world where car ownership has plummetted.


  • Not many comments in this thread seem to agree with the opening statement that changes in retailing are due — “..not to the capitalist bad boys of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s et al. but the refrigerator.”

    The assertion about the impact on the High Street of “the humble fridge” does not seem to be any more popular than the prospect of yet more featureless and remote out-of-town sheds (or retail parks as the lobbyists like to call them).

    Looks like people do think that the capitalist bad boys of Tesco et al carry some blame.

    Contrary to the assertion in the original article, there seems to be plenty of well grounded denials of the statement — “….retail parks suit how we transport and store our food in the modern age.”

    I particularly agree with Maria Pretzler 12th Nov ’14 – 9:11pm when she says —
    “….I am just shocked that a number of people have said that only ten years ago the future still looked a bit like the situation described in this article. Really? Just ten years ago? Surely, the undesirability of too many out-of-town shopping centres has been clear for longer than that – “

  • matt (Bristol) 13th Nov '14 - 12:53pm

    George, you are right about ‘convenience’ stores, but don’t forget that Tesco Express, too, operates a policy of charging more than other branches of the same chain and thereby penalising people who don’t or can’t go out of town.

    The charging policies of the big retailers and their impact on the low-paid and vulnerable have formed a big part of underpinning the food poverty situation over the last few years.

    In all this talk about technological change and societal shifts, we all need to remember that there are and will always be impoverished people with limited resources and limited storage who just need to make a short journey to buy reasonably priced food locally.

  • Would love seeing space above shops converted into one bedroom flats

    I think for me high street is dead because of the Internet and shops not stocking what you want and the answer is order and we will deliver, how is that better than buying off the net in the first place and paying less both instances mean a wait

    I really agree move on top marks for your thoughts

  • I live in a town where the high street has revived, I’m much closer to Mark Pack’s analysis of what’s happening. The high street is communal, social space for interacting with people; shopping isn’t its primary function. British people don’t want to live in the American city model, because it’s isolating for many parts of society (have you been to Milton Keynes?!).

    > That is an undeniable fact

    Undeniable factlulz!! I’ve only ever been to 2 retails parks in my life (I find them abhorrent), I get most food delivered – it’s cheaper and I can get really good fruit & veg from local independent farms this way. About a dozen other houses on my road use the same company so it’s better environmentally and I can go and see where much of the food comes from. So, you can keep your retail parks, I’ll stick with the cheaper, greener farm deliveries that support local business and deliver me superior product – that is an undeniable fact (I’m going to be using that phrase all day now!).

  • Very simple reasons why Liberals should not celebrate the death of the High Street.

    One: Retail Parks encourage far more car use, thus contributing to global warming and depletion of non-renewable resources. Even if you get there, the layout makes walking from one part to another exhausting and not always safe. Shopping online of course offers far more choice for those who have computers, but no social contact. Both the High Street and the edge-of-town supermarket do bring people, particularly older people, together.

    Two: the High Street, as part of a town centre, represents a community. It’s a tangible representation of the people of the town having some identity and commonality. The Retail Park stands for nothing between the big businesses and individual consumers. People are unlikely to have pride in their town if the High Street is a mass of charity shops, betting shops and estate agents.

  • Before people had refrigerators they kept their food in pantries.These little rooms were cool enough to keep food.
    It is only in tropical countries that a refrigeratoris really necessary.

  • Manfarang 14th Nov ’14 – 4:23am
    Before people had refrigerators they kept their food in pantries.

    Manfarang, yes you are quite right. I am old enough to remember the first fridge in our family and have first hand knowledge of pantries.
    Life before the fridge was not quite like the the suggestion in the original article, which seemed to be based on an interpretation of a grandmother’s reminiscences rather than direct experience.
    The last time I visited a supermarket well over 90% of what was on sale would not be kept in a fridge.
    The suggested link between the fridge and the growth out of town retail sheds is entirely fanciful.

    A more realistic analysis might be reached by asking – “Who really benefits from featureless, sheds in retail parks?”
    The answer to that question is quite clearly Tesco, Asda etc. Those “capitalist bad boys” as the original article describes them.
    They have not invested a fortune in these places out of a sense of philanthropy.

    The move to home delivery has already taken customers away from retail parks and this has made Tesco, Sainsbury and others worry that their vast sheds will turn out to be unprofitable white elephants.

    Which brings me back to pantries. In the days of the pantry home delivery of groceries was carried out by boys on bicycles. We have gone full circle.
    A very nice man from Abel and Cole delivers our box of locally sourced organic vegetables in a van rather than on a “butcher’s bike” but otherwise he is the direct descendent of the “grocer’s boy”. He takes away the cardboard boxes from the previous week, there is an absolute minimum of packaging, no plastic bags at all, virtually no waste. It is the next best thing to growing my own vegetables in the back garden, which I would also recommend.

    For other shopping we walk to our highly successful shopping centre High Street which is so much nicer than spending hours driving to and then tramping around a collection of featureless metal sheds in a remote “retail park” which is fringed by windswept acres of tarmac car-park, littered with abandoned metal shopping trolleys (those trolleys which have not found their way into a local river or stream).

    These retail sheds have been thrown up NOT for the convenience of suburban shoppers but to add a few percentage points on to the mega profits of a small number of “capitalist bad boys”. Nobody should be surprised, that is how capitalism goes, especially if it is allowed to run amok without proper regulation and planning constraints.

  • I’ve just remembered, my first Fridge was a Gas Fridge! do they still exist? But I’m not sure it really affected my shopping habits. After all as a student there was only so much beer I could get in it!

  • ” In the days of the pantry home delivery of groceries was carried out by boys on bicycles.”
    When I was at school I worked on Saturday mornings at the Co-op. The delivery boy didn’t work one Saturday and I was asked to do itThe bike had a smaller front wheel and with a big box of groceries it was a real struggle to ride. It wasn’t as easy as it looked!

  • Oh what a romantic view some people have of shopping. I can’t be the only person to understand that large out of town supermarkets reduce the price of food. The idea that people want to spend extra money to have their shopping delivered is false and if you are poor you wouldn’t be considering it. Also as I have already said there are issues with the quality of fresh products that are delivered by supermarkets. (The supermarkets make a loss on every free delivery they make and as more people do their shopping this way the spend needed for free delivery will increase.)

    The vast majority of people use out of town supermarkets. So these people benefit. Then there are those people who wish to go food shopping at unusual times, as I often do, and they benefit. Without the out of town supermarket where could I buy my food at 2 or 3 in the morning?

    There has been a move away from weekly shopping which the supermarket and the freezer has made possible. 50 years ago no families did their shopping once a month or every two or three weeks, now some families do. So while the fridge didn’t change the nation’s food shopping habits, the large supermarket and the freezer has for some people.

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