/ Shopping

Opinion: how to save the high street

Which? magazine columnist Harry Kind celebrates an unlikely source of inspiration for the future of in-store retail.

The centre of Croydon, where I live, can seem a bit bleak. What was once a retail haven is now a parade of empty aisles, countless bookmakers and boarded-up shops.

But amid the failing businesses and sense of decay is a shop with a welcoming glow that invites you to join a throng of customers that spans the generations: Warhammer.

Warhammer creates and sells miniature war games: kits of models that can be assembled, painted and played with. Chances are there’s one near you: pretty much any town that has a Primark or a Next, has a Warhammer. And yes, it’s all very nerdy.

More than just shelves of stuff

A key reason for its vitality is that it offers more than just shelves of stuff. Stores will host competitive games and showcase their customers’ best painted models in the window. New hobbyists are offered lessons on painting and game mechanics, and introduced to other local players.

It even has DBS-checked staff who will supervise your kids while you shop elsewhere. These aren’t the kind of customers afraid of buying things online. And yet they flock to the stores in their droves.

If high street shops are to survive in the age of online shopping, they must offer more than the purely transactional. Bookshops offering readings, record shops with bands playing in the evenings and bike shops that sell the finest espresso are all part of the solution.

A happy high street

And what Warhammer proves is that this kind of business model can be scalable for a multinational company with a mass audience.

Imagine a high street where Zara offered sewing circles, where B&Q helped you build a table from scratch (borrowing its tools, buying its timber), and Tesco offered cooking classes.

At a push, I’d even do Pilates in Sports Direct. What a happy high street. One where we buy less, but spend more. Where we own less, but live more. It will take work, but where the nerd leads, the herd follows.


The general idea behind this article seems to be that shops must provide value added services to encourage customers. This will work if those shops and their services are what the customers want to access. The examples given are somewhat esoteric and also time consuming to a population with time constraints. One usually goes shopping to buy things and shop clubs need both skilled staff to run them, space to operate, equipment to make them attractive and customers willing to be involved. This model may encourage those with time and interest to come to town, though they will have to commit to a few sessions on a regular basis and not just a quick visit in and out. The High Street needs to provide shops and services that the outside malls don’t have. They need to have a residential background for cafes and other recreational activities to thrive, giving them a customer base within walking distance of the central flats and houses. They need to have accessible transport links and not close streets and banish cars from their centres or charge them to come it to them in the name of planet saving. Cinemas and leisure facilities also help fill car parks.
On line shopping has been a curse to the town centre, but so has the fact that the out of town centres are easy to get to and provide what customers want to buy. These too seem to have become less popular recently, with traffic jams to get in and out and crowds queuing for loos and café seats. It must be recognised that our shopping habits and disposable income has changed and is changing. Essentially, an attractive environment with useful features and places to use will bring people in. If they are living there already, so much the better.

High Streets have been ruined by restrictive access and parking. You can no longer nip in and out of towns quickly to buy something in a hurry.

During the Covid restrictions in 2021, half the parking in the marketplace in our town was cordoned off and used for outdoor seating. This was welcomed by most of the public and many of the shops. Now the parking spaces have been further reduced but there is still ample parking for the disabled. It’s not far to walk from a car park where you can park free for three hours. The town is thriving and if you want bigger shops and parking you can visit the shopping centre which has its own multi-storey car park.

Ps. It also occurs to me that shop clubs would need to be vast to get anywhere near the good customer flow to the shops running them, and, of course, the overheads have to be matched by the sales of goods. The average shopper goes in and out. Club members spend hours and there is little turnover trade from them.

To save the High Street, online shopping needs to be less attractive especially for the seller.

The government coffers need constant filling, and there is a huge untapped source of revenue waiting to be collected that would not directly hurt anyone:

Tax ALL internet sales at point of sale and pay it straight to HMRC.

Payment cards and other methods would need to divert money from each sale to HMRC, there are not many payment options on most sites, so it would not be that difficult to set up if all payment methods had to be authorised to operate in the UK.

There are many internet sellers who trade from virtual offices and sell under various names. Marketplace traders switch name before they get to the VAT threshold, in the case of Chinese sellers, their family and employees are set up as traders so their products get maximum exposure and they never pay VAT.

All internet traders should provide verifiable trading addresses they trade their goods from. A furniture seller cannot possibly sell beds and sofas from a 2-up 2-down residential address or a virtual office.

High Street stores have many overheads such as high rent and rates, decor, staff wages, etc., that makes it difficult to compete with online sellers who very often undercut High Street prices.

So to even it up, remove the VAT threshold for ALL online sales where the trader does not also have a genuine UK bricks and mortar store where the public are free to purchase from during normal trading hours.

Benefits could include:
– Traceability of sellers and payments.
– Less scam sales.
– Give UK sellers a boost.
– Give a more even playing field to High Street stores.
– Encourage UK manufacturing.
– Less global transportation.
– Less rubbish for sale.
– Less junk ending up in landfill.
– More choice as repetitive marketing and exposure for the same product is reduced.
– More money for the government.

How jollies into space are paid for:

I agree Alfa. We’d be paying more, and thus it would be a purchase tax of sorts, but it would level up the high street disadvantage. If the real shops could claim to offer better value than those on line, people might use them more. Post and packing are hidden until a purchase is nearly made and that should change too. I also agree that on line sellers should be more transparent and traceable.

Nick Kosminsky says:
21 June 2022

I worked in Retail from the late 70’s until just a few years ago. I saw it’s evolution into new formats, expansion across great swathes of land and now it’s struggles. Thinking small about experiences, parking and tax changes will not resolve the issues. There is simply too much selling space related to demand (of all types). My view is that big government working with regional and local government need a complete new strategy based on consolidating what exists today (physically and with financial support) into smaller areas of towns and then re-dedicate the “dead” space to other needs – recreational, housing, social. Otherwise we’re continually hoping that small enterprises will come up with the answers when the truth of the matter is that things have irreversibly changed and that Retail needs to get up to date.

Most city centres have some fine old buildings of architectural value and hopefully they will be well maintained for the present and future generations to enjoy. Theatres and city halls still attract enough people to maintain their viability. Larger shops have not proved viable in city centres and that is unlikely to change, but small specialist shops can do very well. There must be a limit to the number of places to eat and drink, and introducing more will take trade away from others.

I support Harry’s suggestion that there is a need for businesses to be creative and experiment with a variety of possibilities, accepting that some may be unsuccessful.

I agree with Alfa about changing the taxation and general control environment for on-line selling to rebalance the trading potential for high street retail outlets, although I think it will be hard to wean consumers off the easy ordering and next day delivery available on-line, although the gradual withdrawal of free returns that is now happening could make a difference to customer habits and make shops more attractive again.

I also agree with Nick on consolidating the active parts of the high street to make a better shopping experience. With dead spaces where shops have closed some town centres are looking rather forlorn. In Norwich, we have a huge vacant Debenhams store looming over the city centre together with a big empty BHS on the main shopping street. Most other chain stores are just about hanging on but the City Council has just announced a rent rise of 8% for the market stalls which could lead to the loss of some of the small traders in niche goods and services. There are now only four department stores left but that is better than in most towns I expect. One of the malls is repositioning itself with leisure and entertainment facilities and more eating venues but it’s only the large Boots store that is pulling people in; the remainder of the shops in that mall are very low-key with just one bored member of staff in each struggling to keep it alive; after the building society and the post office pulled out it almost collapsed completely.

The big change happened before the pandemic when several office blocks in the city centre became vacant and were converted into small housing units. The population of these dwellings don’t seem to have the spending power or generate the footfall of the business people who occupied the office blocks so whereas the centre was lively at lunchtimes and after work it is now comparatively quiet on weekdays.

Crusader says:
22 June 2022

Many city centres have indeed got some fine buildings, and so have some large towns too. Look at the magnificent train station in Huddersfield for instance, or the town hall and library and some other buildings in Bolton town centre, or the crescent building in Buxton, if you’re too far away have a look on google maps street view. But far too many grand features have been utterly ruined by councils and developers, who in my honest opinion have done far more outrageous damage than any bombers ever did, either the luftwaffe or terrorists. Like what’s happened to Piccadilly gardens in Manchester for instance, I remember how it was with the grand flower beds in the summer, but now it’s all been ruined, you can see on you tube how it used to be and on google maps how it is now, absolutely dreadful. And we need gardens in our cities, I’m sure little ones especially will appreciate them.

I agree, Crusader. Fortunately not all our towns and cities have been ruined by councils and developers and some historic buildings have been made more accessible. Flowers provide welcome relief for those who need relief from the bustle and retail experience.

Maria Seale says:
27 June 2022

I absolutely agree with Harry, I have longed for a shop to offer me more than just stuff. I don’t need anymore stuff but I would like to learn from experts or find a new skill. John Lewis used to give sewing and knitting lessons until they shrank their haberdashery departments. I really hope that shops catch up with what people want (even when people don’t know what they want). This idea could revolutionise our high streets. Please raise this more with retailers.

We’ve got to be real here. It takes effort to go to your high street. Most people live miles from their town center high street. So I very much doubt creating informative, interactive displays will woo people over to make the effort. Plus, it is expensive to get there with the recent surge in fuel prices and the fact that city centers are introducing low emission zones to keep traffic away. I think local councils can do a whole lot more to help by reducing the rates that high street businesses require to pay. They also need to do a whole lot more to monitor and remove some of the unsavoury characters from our high streets. By this I don’t just mean beggars and drug addicts (though I do include these), but also some of the unappealing characters who think it is acceptable to pick up a microphone and shout at the top of their voices. Here in Aberdeen, we have to tolerate the same character shouting “Jesus Christ” at the top of their voice for hours on end, every Saturday outside Marks and Spencers. Been going on now for over a year. Whatever your religious stance, it is painful on the ears. They could also introduce some police onto the high street who are actually prepared to remove such people, and to also remove cyclists and e-scooter maniacs off the pavement. You never see a policeman on foot patrol these days. So you see, the lack of shoppers on the high street isn’t just about the internet. It’s also about the unwillingness of our Council leaders to take direct action on the high street, to make it an attractive place to visit.

The level of business rates is set by the government and they are based on valuations set by an arm of HMRC. Local councils get the revenue but have no say over the amount levied.

Many councils have no local byelaws in place to enable control over, or restrictions on, various forms of anti-social, offensive or nuisance behaviour, so I agree there is more that they could and should do to make shopping areas more pleasant.

A. Laing wrote: “…and the fact that city centers are introducing low emission zones to keep traffic away.”

Here is a fairly recent article explaining the plans to improve air quality in the worst affected cities, the main problem being nitrogen dioxide from the exhausts of diesel and petrol cars:

Crusader says:
28 June 2022

EXCUSE ME! DON’T pick on Christian preachers, we NEED them now more than ever as Britain is now in deadly serious trouble with all manner of seriously EVIL practices and culture becoming far too popular and it’s dangerous, especially when it’s deliberately aimed at our extremely precious and vulnerable children which far too much of it is using every possible means, and I’m seeing an increasing worrying trend in young mothers who are seriously into really dangerous practices and imagery and putting themselves and their precious little ones in serious danger. And if this trend carries on as it is without being challenged then it will only create more hatred and violence and dishonesty and thieving, and more severe depression and suicides, and far more illegal drug dealing and dependency etc. and more neighbourhoods being forced to live in fear by violent criminals and so on, not to mention more filthy paedophiles and brutal psychopaths etc. and more homelessness and destitution, is this what you want? Think about it! So let the preachers do their job as they have an absolutely VITAL job to do so just let them get on with it, and remember preaching is a democratic right here in Britain which countless millions have fought and DIED to protect, which is what remembrance is all about every november. And don’t anyone bother trying to contradict me as this is a subject I know and there is all manner of appalling problems in our towns and cities which only serious Christian action can deal with, and it’s already been seriously successful in various areas, not only here in Britain but around the world. And anyone who disagrees and wants preachers removed is miles out of touch with reality and obviously only cares about their own convenience which is what far too many here in Britain only care about. If anyone needs removing from our town centres it’s pickpockets and drug dealers and shoplifters etc. but certainly not Christian preachers, and believe me if I could preach I would certainly do a proper job of it and REALLY get them told.

I don’t object to street preachers and other ranters and demagogues addressing groups of people in town centres in places which are designated for such activities or which have a history of such use, but I don’t approve of people haranguing passers-by and shouting continuously through a megaphone. That is anti-social behaviour in my view whatever the message and can also cause offence provoking strong reactions that can lead to unpleasant scenes.

We have traditions of religious tolerance and (generally) peaceful protest, but the state of the world today requires a lot more sensitivity in public actions and pronouncements and, while preaching morality [good versus evil] might seem to be a good thing, it can be perceived as a campaign by one religion against others and that is not good.

I am not convinced of a direct relationship between assertive Christian preaching in town centres and a reduction in criminal behaviour; I think we have to be careful not to stir up feelings of vigilantism. I tend to agree with A. Laing’s point that to make town centres more attractive to shoppers and visitors we need to remove disruptive and provocative elements whatever their supposed beneficial intent in order to restore calm, good order and enjoyment to our public spaces.

Crusader says:
30 June 2022

Those who really need removing from our towns are those who peddle counterfeit goods or else carry out fake “charity” collections who are often supporting brutal organised crimes which include forced prostitution, slavery, people trafficking, highly destructive drugs, dangerous fake medications, racketeering, weapons smuggling, supplying terrorists, extortion, “protection” rackets, etc. the list goes on. And of course they often sell highly dangerous electrical contraptions and fake alcoholic drinks too which can KILL! THEY are the folk who really need removing, and imprisoning. Genuine Christian preachers have an absolutely essential job to do and they need to take their message to the people, as Britain is now in a spiritual crisis and it’s great to hear that that preacher has the guts and determination to keep going for all that time, why not have a look on you tube at UK Christian street preachers and see the dangers they often have to face.

I must admit I have never encountered or heard about the fake charity collectors you refer to and would be interested to see the evidence for your accusations of the criminal offences you mention. Selling counterfeit goods is illegal and Trading Standards, together with the police, deal with it. Fake charity collecting is also dealt with by the police in association with the Charity Commission. I doubt if the authorities are able to shut down any such problems entirely but I believe they are keeping them in check.

I accept that street preachers put themselves in the way of various harms but I am not sure that is overall in the interests of our society. As I suggested before, self-appointed moral guardians or agitators can provoke unwelcome responses and inflame situations. I would prefer to leave such matters to the proper authorities, chiefly the police.

I cannot share your views on the prevalence of moral turpitude in the UK and since this is probably too controversial a subject to pursue through Which? Conversation I shall leave it there.

Crusader says:
1 July 2022

One final note. To find out a bit more try watching “shoplifters and scammers, at war with the law” on 5star, they show what’s going on in our town and city centres.