Have you noticed how your local high street keeps changing? Do you wonder why stores come and go all the time – perhaps one of your favourite shops has closed or moved to another part of town, or cafes and restaurants are taking over what used to be nothing but clothes? Have you noticed how South Molton Street in London used to be a shoe shopper’s paradise, but now it’s become petit Paris with every French fashion brand under the sun but not a single shoe shop in sight?
High streets are constantly evolving.
Just look at the city of Bath. I used to be a Jaeger regional manager in the early Noughties and Bath was one of my stores. Back then, Bath had four distinct shopping areas: Milsom Street, where most premium stores were located, Union Street and Stall Street which had mass market stores, Southgate with a tired 1960s shopping centre and Walcot Street with a selection of independent stores and markets.
At that time, Milsom Street was really the only place that buyers would find premium stores. With a Gap Kids at the very top, a House of Fraser, a large Russell & Bromley and a Habitat and Gap at the bottom, it was the primary focus for clothing shoppers. Union Street and Stall Street had key mass market brands such as M&S, HMV, WH Smith and Dixons, so attracted buyers on their way back down from Milsom Street who needed household products and food. Southgate’s aged indoor-outdoor centre hosted an Argos with an H&M and Top Show nearby, and Walcot Street, at the very top of town, hosted a range of independent stores such as musical instrument sellers, antiques stores and even an unlikely small Apple shop (remember, this was long before Apple’s rise to fame).
That was over ten years ago, so what is the position now?
Milson Street has seen some change. Habitat has been replaced by the modern, American, fashion experience brand Anthropologie, House of Fraser has had a long over-due refit, Bravissimo and Space NK are new entrants and there are several new stores selling quirky gifts. In essence, Milsom Street has evolved, but it still caters for the premium brand-seeking shopper, relying on House of Fraser and Gap as its anchor stores.
In 2007, it was announced that the Southgate area would be redeveloped, and in 2009 a brand new outdoor shopping centre opened at the bottom of town. So what would it mean for this city’s shopping? Well, in the new centre, Bath welcomed in some refreshing popular stores: Apple (now a far larger glass-fronted store), The North Face, All Saints, Kurt Geiger, Debenhams, and a more extensive Top Shop and River Island, all ventured into Southgate.
This development has radically changed the status quo of the city. Premium brands are now both ‘at the top of town’ in Milson Street AND ‘at the bottom of town’ in Southgate, so if you are a shopper, you now have a choice: park at the top and just visit Milsom Street? Or park at the bottom and just visit Southgate? There is a long walk between the two, and, with these choices now in place, many visitors are just shopping at one end or the other rather than ambling throughout the whole of Bath. The new underground car park next to Southgate is another hit to Milsom Street’s former dominance: previously, customers divided necessarily between Walcot Street’s parking at the top and Avon Street’s parking at the bottom, but now there is so much more space at the bottom end that customers don’t need to seek parking spaces at the top – which can only be contributing to Southgate’s success.
The most interesting thing is what has happened in the middle. The area around Union Street and Stall Street has been struggling for years, and in my view this has been the real casualty of the new Southgate development.
Burton has closed, as has the iconic independent toy store Erik Snook and the long-time favourite Thorntons. Some of the larger stores like River Island have jumped ship to Southgate and the brands that replaced them frequently change. New brands include Primark and Ecco and these appear to be surviving, but there is still a great deal of work to be done. It will be interesting to see what happens next: will it be fashion-led retailers who save the day, or stores that provide customers with unique experiences? Flying Tiger Copenhagen seems to be tapping into the latter niche rather well, but it is yet to be seen whether it will go the way of so many ‘middle town' brands and die out in a few years’ time.
What is clear is that no high street ever stands still. To stay in business, cities need evolution, and while no one can easily predict how those changes will affect them, everyone wants to know.
Anna is an outlet and retail specialist, providing recruitment, consulting and leasing services through her company Intense Retail.
With thanks to Peter Castleton for the above photograph.