Why 2019 must be a year of change for the high street

The high street needs to change dramatically in order to survive.

WHAT is it about football and the Premier League that attracts so many colourful and influential characters?

The civic passion it evokes across the UK, Ireland and internationally as well as the financial clout required to influence it, are two undoubted factors. One football man whose passion for the game and sport in general permeates across both his personal and professional life is Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct retail magnate.

A larger than life character he's never far away from the headlines whether its ‘will he won't he sell Newcastle FC', to buying the struggling House of Frazer for £90m or shortly before Christmas stating that the high street was ‘already dead'.

His proposal that retailers with high online sales should pay 20 per cent tax on those sales, is not a viable solution to support the much-needed regeneration of the high street or indeed vibrancy in town and city centres. Market intervention within the context of consumer trends is a blunt instrument that doesn't address the heart of the issue.

What is undisputed is that the high street needs to change dramatically in order to survive. The latest post-Christmas results highlight a 3 per cent drop in footfall from last year, the third consecutive annual fall for the industry. 2019 needs to see a dramatic shift in focus to a more ‘experiential' activity so that high streets are offering more than just shopping.

Peter Cross, the customer experience director at John Lewis has said retail needs to be doing something truly differentiated that online retailers cannot match.

“You can't take the risk of not doing this stuff in shops now. People expect more. They want to have a personal shopper, take a class in cooking, try out that new restaurant and go to the cinema all at once.”

The truth is that without this change, many will view the idea of traditional shopping offline as not being worth it.

Retail must be innovative in attracting customers back and creative new living and event space within our town centres, requiring strong collaboration between the public and private sectors, is of course integral to that. To further support their evolution retailers must also embrace the role of digital marketing and influencers to better react to the ever-changing market trends. In isolation none of these are a panacea, but a failure to change in 2019 could validate Mike Ashley's bleak assessment of the industry's future.

As with the shopping experience technology continues to drive a shift across many facets of our lives including travel, healthcare and employment.

The long-touted driverless vehicle revolution is passing through its testing period and will be rolled out across a number of US cities in 2019. The impact of this for consumers will be significant and far reaching if these early steps are successful. However, what still remains unclear is the culpability of malfunctioning technology or human error.

In this eventuality the wider industry and government need to take leadership on whether the car manufacturer, the software provider, the engineer, the insurer or indeed, the owner of the vehicle is responsible for the impact of any error.

Again, within the transport genre two state of the art airports in Istanbul and Beijing are expected to considerably increase the competition among global airlines, driving down prices for consumers and increasing the range and availability of international flights. Indeed, some commentators have predicted this year to be “the year of cheap flights".

50 years after the first moon landings, there is no sign of domestic flights to the moon just yet, but 2019 will be a year that is remembered for a resurgence in space exploration with China's lunar lander expected to be the first craft to land on the far side of the moon.

Health and inherent technologies in areas such as cancer detection, wearable robotics and genetic modification will make significant strides in the next 12 months and has the potential to transform healthcare in the long term.

Indeed, 2018 saw the first claim of genetically modified human embryos in China resistant to the HIV virus although this particular claim is still to be medically verified. There are ongoing trials in Europe and the US in gene editing and these will originally be used for the eradication of melanoma and other genetic diseases.

However, just how far this modification is taken is a challenge for all societies. Global, civic and religious leadership will need to sensitively and in a spirit of cooperation address how innovation, technology and ethical integrity sit comfortably side by side.

Ethics should influence the impact of technology and as highlighted within Pope Francis' New Year's address, family and community must be kept in central focus so that these important social bonds are not broken by the rate of change in our society.

2019 will bring all of these issues into sharp focus and it will likely change much more than just our high street shops.

Technology will continue to shape societal focus and consumer trends and we have to garner its power and evolve and grow with the opportunities it creates.

And as for retail, 2019 is the year that it must change with the building blocks of sustainable town and city centres being established by the public and private sector working in collaborative partnership. Afterall, ‘we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are'. (Max de Pree)

:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken

:: Next week: Richard Ramsey

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