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Government drive to save High Street vital to tackling social ills, says minister

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High Streets need to play a vital part in tackling social and economic challenges in communities, says Communities Secretary James Brokenshire.

As M&S continues to save money by slashing its High Street footprint, along with recent High Street casualties Evans Cycles, Debenhams and House of Fraser, the government is calling on councils, retailers and brands to look at how to make High Streets vibrant places to “live, work and gather” as part of its Open Doors project to help tackle rising knife crime, loneliness and unemployment.

“High streets can and do play a big part in this vision. We want to see vibrant hubs where people live, shop, use services, and come together,” said Brokenshire, launching the project. “I recognise that these challenges are linked. Empty shops and decreasing footfall on the high street can contribute to social problems such as crime, unemployment and loneliness, while successful high streets can make communities stronger.”

According to Brokenshire, the scheme will match landlords of vacant commercial units with community groups offering vital services to younger and older people. The aim is to reduce loneliness among our most vulnerable members of the community, whilst increasing footfall in town centres.

This announcement follows the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget which confirmed a new £1.5 billion plan to support and transform the high street.

So what can retailers be doing to revamp the High Street? John Lewis & Partners is using its JLAB programme to develop in-store experiencesand customer service plays to make stores more attractive. Many others – including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Co-op and Budgens – are trialling scan and go technologies to make stores more attractive, while shoppers wait with bated breathe for the roll out of more Amazon Go stores.

In fact, Amazon is also planning a series of pop-up stores in High Streets in London during peak season as part of its Black Friday offering.

Together, these innovations are likely to pique shoppers interest in the High Street, but are they enough to make it a place to repeatedly visit? Until there are cogent reasons to make repeat visits – such as entertainment, food and drink and shopping, as well as ‘experiences’ – then the High Street could well continue to be something of a waste land.

The government’s plan for mixed use developments will take time to come to fruition: is there time to wait? As stores close to save money, shopping habits will be changed even more rapidly.

Image: Internet Retailing Media Services/Paul Skeldon

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