While digital retail is on the rise, we shouldn’t forget about the social value of high street shopping districts.
The high street has always been a place where people came together to get the things they needed. In days gone by, there would be a grocer, a fish shop, a butcher, a hardware store and a bookstore in most towns and city-fringe suburbs.
My grandparents were shopkeepers. On my father’s side, Phyllis and Wilfred ran a corner store in the Taranaki town of Tikorangi selling everything from gasoline and ham to light bulbs and newspapers. On my Yugoslav mother’s side, Lilli and Nick ran the local fish shop in Sandringham. This was local commerce on the high street at its purest: they were couples in partnership running a business, buying, making and selling products to their community. They were woven into the fabric of their locations and knew most of their customers by name.
Fast forward now to the online landscape, where competition is global. Consumers are offered more choice than ever before, but are no longer participating in local commerce in the way they used to.
As our world becomes more digital and personalised, there is a risk people can end up in isolated bubbles retreating to their residual identities where they are spared any obligation to get on with their neighbours, to socialise and compromise. It creates a sense of individual entitlement that does not have the time or desire to include others. The real opportunity should be how can we engage with others more, when we are forced to see things that are both different to who we are and at the same time accepting it enriches our community.
Over the last 20 years of running Nature Baby in the suburbs of the city fringe in Auckland, we have become more and more interested in the concepts of community around helping people find ways to care about the whole system and how it relates. For us this reaches from the communities and families making our product all the way through to the families we sell to. What we have found is that a connection to things brings a deeper understanding and this understanding brings a sense of empowerment and happiness. This knowledge makes people feel like they have a choice and at the same time they are supporting something locally that is bigger, they belong and they are valued. Our customers are attracted to this at a physical level which they can also dip into online.
What can we do to keep the high street thriving is a question on many economists and city architects’ minds. Theoretically, shoppers could construct a reality where they never have to leave the house and interact with their city, and that would be a shame. There’s huge value in building meaningful human interactions into daily life to create communities. I believe we’ll end up somewhere between the physical and the digital but we have to work a lot harder to see the value of the high street as beacons of togetherness where random difference and happiness are constant.
The beauty of the high street is that it is a community working. But we need to rise to the challenge collectively to see what this new version of a community could be, we need to marinate, innovate and curate the possibilities and we need collaborative support from local councils and government. They need to be sensitive to the issues, otherwise we will face a crisis, a set of houses without a community of shops and services never builds strong societies. So I encourage you as a retailer and a consumer to say hello to your high street again. Meet it down on the corner, walk along its friendly paths, sit under its umbrella of trees, watch others go by and think about what it could be.
Jacob Faull is the founder and director of Nature Baby.