Conflicting evidence of a changing high street

January 26, 2011

Recent press coverage in the Financial Times (“Bookies odds-on for high street exposure”) and The Guardian (“The British high street: RIP”) indicates an increase in vacant properties, a shift away from high street locations for ‘big name’ retailers and the spread of betting shops – all part of a negative trend mid-recession. Contrariwise, The Independent on Sunday suggests that artisinal bread may ‘breathe life back into the high street‘.

These news items raise some issues for our research. First, one of the data sources being used to quantify shop closures was found in our previous project to be only 70% correct – at best – when verified on the ground. It was particlarly unreliable when it came to recording non-chain shops and small, non-retail businesses. So, whilst it is undoubtedly true that shops are closing and not being replaced, it is imperative that we capture the entire town centre in such discussions and don’t just focus on the famous brands and big-name chains.

This is where the Independent article may be shedding light on the sort of bottom-up process that has allowed for town centres in the past to confound the sounding of their death knell. At the risk of overly romanticising localism, it is evidently essential that when studying our cases we take account of both the positive and negative phenomena described here and that in our ethnographic studies, we make sure to record the characteristics of all patterns of work, including start-ups, homeworking, working above the shop and etc.

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