Online sales: the death knell of your high street? Or paving the way for its future?

How did you do your Christmas shopping in 2013? On your local high street? Online? Click and collect?

MD of John Lewis, the aptly named Andy Street, announced record online sales for the Partnership, with an increase of almost 23% against last year’s figures.

At the same time, he asserted vigorously that online sales would not see the end of JL stores. Indeed, he claimed the two go hand in glove, with click-and-collect or “bricks and clicks” being the way forward to keep retail stores in business and in touch with their customers’ demands. Such is his faith in the combination that plans for opening another 25 JL stores in the next ten years are already in train.

Don’t we wish we could have been a fly on the wall of a JL board meeting some 25 years ago, say, when e-commerce, as it was known, was in its infancy and the potential of the recently created world wide web (take a bow, Sir Tim Berners-Lee) was imagined by just a few?

With such unimaginable changes taking place in the past 25 years: how can we possibly know what a successful high street might look like in 25 years’ time? How can we possibly know how our grandchildren will view and use town centres in 2040? Will online shopping still exist then? Or will it have been overtaken by yet another new technology?

The short answer is: we can’t know.

Start from what we DO know. Visualise a typical small-medium town, today, anywhere in the UK. Not big enough to attract the likes of John Lewis; out-of-town supermarkets taking the lion’s share of residents’ daily spend; plagued by the rash of “money shops”, charity shops and pound stores, and serviced by a limping public transport service.

No matter what you think of the reports produced by high profile retailers such as Mary Portas and Bill Grimsey, the future of your town centre and mine share two things in common: firstly, the past will not serve as a template for the future; and secondly the present is unsustainable.

There is no quick fix to shore up our high streets. There is no single future, either. There are, rather, multiple possible futures. What we can do is have the imagination to look to the future, the long-term future, not hanker for an unreal golden past.

We can bring together everyone with an interest in the future of our towns and pool their thoughts, dreams and desires, no matter how strange, shocking or downright impossible those ideas might seem. Should all shops have helipads to receive online orders and become collection points only? Shall we dig up the high street, plant vegetables and raise chickens/pigs/sheep? Or restrict roads to automatic delivery vehicles only? What about putting schools, medical centres, government offices in shop buildings? Or make shopping free: but pay to collect?

Don’t forget: 25 years ago, online shopping was virtually unthinkable, yet we accept it as the norm today.

Out of those many thoughts, dreams and desires will emerge a handful of possible and above all viable futures for our towns. Having identified the “possibles,” we must decide what the BEST POSSIBLE future looks like.

Online shopping – or its successor – may be the key to the future of our high streets. But it is down to US to have the vision, imagination and courage to take decisions NOW to prepare for the future – whatever it may look like – and to do everything we can to enable our preferred future to emerge.

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