Gordon Young

Gordon Young, editor of The Drum, offers his insight and opinion on various matters relating to media and marketing.

21 February 2012 - 12:52pm | posted by | 2 comments

Is the High Street beyond saving?

Unloved, unwanted and abandoned next to a bin on a cold winter’s day, the object looked to be in a sorry state. But I picked it up and took it home. And after cutting through 40 years of village shop grease and grime I found something of beauty.

It was a 1950s Adwel adding machine; effectively a mechanical calculator. The only power the Norwegian-built contraption ever required was the strong-arm of the local sub-post mistress.
Why is this relevant to readers of The Drum? Because to me it represents a great metaphor for what is happening in sectors such as media and retail. The Adwel is fiendishly complex. Still in perfect working order it contains over 1,000 manufactured parts; each one would have been designed and drawn by hand.

The complex cogs, springs, levers and keys allow one to add, subtract and multiply. In addition its mechanical cache can carry sub totals, before – with the pull of its handle – the whole unit, in a marvel of precision engineering, dumps its total on a till receipt roll. So complex is this machine it could have driven a saint to drink. But it was no doubt the pride of some Norwegian factory. I can just imagine them spending these dark Scandinavian winters refining their design – perhaps replacing a spring here, the angle of a cog there.

And then some bugger invented the calculator. Overnight this mechanical marvel – which no doubt evolved over decades – was as dead as a Dodo. Suddenly machines which would have cost the equivalent of £100s in today’s money were being simply abandoned next to bins.

The same thing is happening for similar reasons in our mainstream economy. Many are fooled into thinking the current stresses and strains are all down to the credit crunch. But in reality the economic pressures are simply accelerating a transition which was underway in any case.

Take retail. With the growth of online, (and emerging disciplines such as Performance Marketing which is featured in a special report published in the latest issue of The Drum) there is simply less need for traditional shops. Many high streets, despite the best efforts of the likes of Mary Portas, will inevitably go the same way as the Adwel adding machine. And the same is true for any printed newspaper that believes it is still in the business of breaking news.

That is why I will keep my Adwel in sight; it serves as a reminder that nothing – not tradition, craftsmanship or even ingenuity – can save a product that has lost its purpose.


21 Feb 2012 - 13:49
graeme_longstaff's picture

To me the world has moved on, yet the majorities of high streets haven't.

With the exception of certain parts of big cities most high streets still model themselves around the olden days of everyone being happily married, the man goes out to work whilst during the day the woman runs the errands and visits the local shops etc. They open at 9 and are closed for 5. That just doesn't cut the mustard anymore. Peoples professional lives are simply just not 9 to 5. Long hours, shift patterns and social lives now take preference over if our meat comes from the local butcher or from a big supermarket.

From a personal level I catch the bus into work - i'm at the stop at half seven where the only local shops open are a tesco metro and a co-operative. And upon returning home the same shops (apart from the added smells from the takeaways and bright lights of the bookies) are again the only places open.

Can't we take any inspiration from the continent where they have a midday siesta and then are open til later in the evening. I'd love to be able to ge toff my bus and pop to the butchers, green grocers then nip straight home to rustle it up. Also I'd like to take a look at local councils and how much ground rent they charge to places - seems to me that some would rather have a dead town centre with paid for parking, rather than cheap ground rent and free parking.

I think there are many factors as to why the high streets are suffering, the main one to me would be that it just isnt easy anymore. Why take the effort to dive out at lunchtime or leave work early, find a parking space, then fumble for change and maybe pay more for my groceries/clothing etc... when i could just drive to the big supermarket open 24 hours a day and get everything we need.

Us humans are fickle creatures and are generally loyal to what ever makes living our lives easier, and at the moment the current high street is not doing this. So in answer to your original question. No i believe it's not beyond saving...but unless massive changes are put into action they might as well turn round the closed signs for good.

Does any of this mad rambling i've just said make sense? does anyone care? I'm off for a Big Mac.

23 Feb 2012 - 07:30
david_reid1's picture

Graham Longstaff makes a number of excellent points. Most notably that retail outlets have failed to adapt to demographic and sociatal change.

Shops should open slightly later and be open far longer. This model works well in cities like Barcelona, Paris and NYC.

Most human beings have an inate desire to see and be seen and simply ordering items online fails to satisy this basic need.

The shops of the future will be effectively just window dressing, where one can select and even try on goods to have them delivered later.

Councils such as Edinburgh's with astroniomical rates will be the losers as more and more streets become deserted. Trams issues aside, Princes Street, Shanwick Place and Tolcross are all now retail ghettos that must adapt or die.


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