As I write this column, Toys R Us and Maplin have both run out of cash and gone into administration. There are rumours about some other retailers that are in trouble. All of this has led to another round of “death of the high street” worries, although I suspect that part of the problem with Toys R Us was that it was not on our high street.
So, is the high street dying? Shopping is certainly changing. Online is great and is having an impact, and the fact that the money in our pockets is growing at less than inflation has boosted the growth of some shops to the detriment of others. But we are essentially social animals. We like to go out, to be with other people, to experience different things and to “try before we buy”.
No-one wants to sit at home with the computer or smartphone counting the pennies.
The high street will survive and thrive if it gives people a reason to come.
Bringing this back to Sheffield, where is this relevant? Well it applies to our local shopping centres, it certainly applies to our city centre and I think it even applies to Meadowhall.
Quite simply offering people identikit shops is not good enough. On this score, whilst Meadowhall continues to be popular, the development of the now permitted Leisure Hall will catapult it right back to the top of the league. For our city centre though, the fact that its regeneration is “work in progress” gives us a great opportunity to get this right for the decades to come.
“Getting it right” for me means delivering on four key fronts. These are variety, independence, authenticity and blend.
Variety is fairly obvious. Shops plus more shops won’t work. Shops plus cafes plus bars will. However, if left to the market this may or may not happen. It needs creating and controlling – curating may be a better word. We are able to provide that curation.
Independence is, I am convinced, a by-product of the digital age.
We all value the convenience of the “always available” standard brand, but that drives an equal desire for the independent experience. Add the word “independent” to any shop and you add curiosity and value. This is where Sheffield can excel with its great independent sector and spirit. Division Street and West Street live and breathe this.
The next is authenticity.
In a world where you can experience the virtual version of just about anything we will still want, and maybe want even more, the real thing.
That can be as simple as an open street with real weather (although not the type outside my window as I write this), but more often it is about the street musicians, the green spaces and fountains, the maker selling his or her goods direct.
Someone once referred to this as “free range shopping”.
The last one is blend. This means, quite simply, that shops – the “high street” – will thrive when people are there for multiple reasons, only one of which may be shopping.
If we see this in the context of our city centre, that means people being there because they live there, they work there, they are meeting friends there, going to the cinema, studying there or maybe just sitting enjoying the look and feel.
And, importantly, not putting people in zones. Workers should not be confined to the office zone just as culture should not be confined to the theatre district.
In Sheffield city centre we now have the chance to do all of this.
There is a good chance that we can make this happen, and the authentic and independent plays right to the true spirit of this city. And just to give this some momentum, this change has already started.
The number of shoppers on The Moor is up by over 20 per cent driven by variety, independence, great public realm and new shops.
And the number of people living in the city centre is up from less than 3, 000 in 1998 to over 27000 now.
HSBC’s new offices going right in the heart of things, and the new TechHub opening in the old Co-op are all part of that.
I admit that there is a bit of “back to the future” in this.
City centres used to be about independence, variety, authenticity and blend.
We have the chance to be the 21st century version of that, with a modern twist.
In signing off, very shortly there will be a draft plan for the city centre that, if we have got it right, will bring all of the above to life.
You though, will be the judge of that.