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The role of community in mobilizing and reviving the high street

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The Maverick Group on the importance of rallying the community to get the high street going again

I’ve always been interested in people, design and retail, so it’s no surprise that I became a retail designer. I’ve been designing retail experiences for over 37 years, from global giants to growing independents.

I learnt my craft as a young designer at one of the best retail design agencies, Fitch, back in the early 1980s.

The company was led by the retail pioneer Rodney Fitch, who loved retailing and saw design as a force for good – improving lives, creating inspirational experiences and binding communities together.

Rodney used to speak about retailers needing to be “impresarios [who] create theater, in a show that would (hopefully) run and run” and of retail being the very “foundation of the community”. He was right... as always.

During those years, we transformed the luck of virtually the whole high street, creating new brands, formats and ways of shopping.

Today it’s a rather different story, as the high street struggles to gain traction with closed shops, little innovation and turgid offerings.

In all of the years that I’ve been involved in retail, I can’t remember the high street looking so dull, scruffy, predictable, lackluster and uncared for.

With dirty shopfronts, peeling paint, poor visual merchandising and cheap plastic signs, I sometimes feel that I’m in a third-world country, rather than a country that once prided itself as being a nation of shopkeepers.

The experience has become so mediocre and the brands so same-same as to be not worth the journey, car parking ticket and effort. Why bother when you can shop from the comfort of your armchair?

It’s a depressing sight, and while town councils need to up their game by reducing business rate taxes, retailers need to smarten themselves up and re-engage with customers again.

Governments, local authorities and landlords need to support retailers more, but retailers also need to show more enthusiasm for what they sell and how they sell them, and not take their customers for granted anymore. We’ve been served the same for too long.

There are some great examples of towns out there, such as Altringham in Cheshire, where Trafford Council partnered with a private investor to turn the listed Market Hall into a trendy dining space, and Frome in Somerset, where local authority intervention and community spirit has joined in transforming the entire town for the better. By energizing the heart of the town, St Catherine’s (Frome’s artisan quarter), the community flourishes and so does incoming revenues. Strict rules help to preserve the town’s character, but a strong sense of pride and community make it work. Frome is now regularly voted as being in the top ten places to live in the South West.

Ten years ago, everyone was moaning about the cookie-cutter nature of the high street: the same brands, same store designs, same products, same experiences and every town looking pretty much identical. Now, with so many of these brands literally dying on their feet, there is a real opportunity for brand reinvention by established retailers and for smaller independents to show how smart, savvy, innovative and witty they are. In short, to be and do something different. To be an impresario again.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, we’ve seen how people have reconnected with their local stores and have enjoyed the experience. We’ve seen the resurgence of independent bakers, butchers, cycle shops, florists, delis, barbers, hardware stores and fashion shops. We have loved their specialist nature, passion for what they do, pride in their specialism and connection with the community.

We’re witnessing the end of the mass generalist stores that stood for very little (beyond making a profit), didn’t add to the community and sold the same things as everyone else. Stores that sold you anything, but nothing particularly great.

People want to buy better and have things that are made to last. Things that improve with age and are the best of their type. They want to buy less, but higher quality. Things with a meaning, story and value. Things selected on their merit and curated by retailers that care.

So where does all of this leave the high street? For thousands of years people have gone into towns to meet friends, see what’s new, pick up essentials, get ideas, find information, have a drink, eat a meal, be entertained and people watch.

Retail passion is the reason why street markets are so exciting, colorful, theatrical and vibrant, and, in contrast, supermarkets seem so cold, unhuman and flat.

As places including Frome, Altringham, Totnes and Hastings have discovered, you need towns to become communities again. Places that embrace culture, fairs, markets, entertainment, theater and unique shopping experiences. The future high street will need to be independent-minded – and retailers’ brands more emotional.

Andy Myring, director and head of design at The Maverick Group.

For more on the reinvention of retail, check out The Drum’s Retail hub, where we explore everything from livestreaming e-commerce to AR shopping and conscious consumerism.

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