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  • Writer's picturebenstephenson

//Five businesses that are changing the way we think about the high street

Updated: May 30, 2019

Reports of the 'death of the high street' are ubiquitous, unhelpful and beginning to compound the problem. However, examples abound which demonstrate how business models are adapting to meet our changing needs, finds Ben Stephenson

There are of course thousands of businesses up and down the country bucking the trend, reinventing themselves and meeting new demands. Their models incorporate a new focus on sustainability, multiple uses and localism. Almost every town has a clutch of them and their presence replaces some of the confidence lost when the old M&S or Jamie's Italian shuts its doors. Here are five of the best.

Multiple uses

Glitch, Bristol

Old Market in Bristol is one of those visibly transitioning places, and this makes way for creative new business models which embrace the idea of multiple uses in a single space. Glitch takes the notion to extremes, hosting a hair salon first and foremost, but also a performance space, pizza shop, plant shop and clothes pop-up.

The separation between these uses is thought through and functional. The quality of every product line from the soundtrack to the succulents is also outstanding and the variety of possible experiences means you might pick up a slice or buy a t-shirt while you were waiting for your hair cut, or go just to watch the band play. The young customer demographic is as good an indication as any that this is one of the possible futures for the high street.

Work and Play

Mare St Market, London

Another multi-use space, this time food-led, but one of the best of its kind. Opened in 2018, the 10,000 sq/ft former Hackney Council office hosts a deli, a florist, two dining rooms, a record shop, a bakery, a vintage lighting store and even a podcast booth. Situated below a WeWork, but drawing it's clientele from across East London, this space feels less like a single experience than Glitch, and more like a reboot of the shopping centre concept for a millennial age.

It's perhaps telling that clothing retail is largely left out of the offer in favour of the experiential - records are played before they are bought, the lamp shop is the ideal insta-backdrop. Design is paramount. Communal dining tables are hard to come by during the day with workers on laptops taking up much of the space, but the transition into evening is seamless and more successful than other spaces which aim for both markets. Mare Street Market's clever use of space can give clientele a range of atmospheres to suit a changing mood, a vital element in the design of such spaces in a future where everyone is always both at work and at play.

Diversification of evening economy

The Brink, Liverpool

For religious or health reasons an increasing number of us are adopting an abstemious lifestyle, and the opportunities for socialising without drinking in the UK are few and far between. This can lead to social isolation, can discourage those who have given up drinking, and can contribute to anti-social behaviour in our towns and cities. Until recently one of the few places you would see people of all ages and faiths in one place at night would be MacDonald's.

Brink in Liverpool is one of the few - but increasing - non-alcoholic bars in the UK which aims to show us the alternative. Following the lead of vegan restaurants which are proving that sustainable lifestyles make for increasingly popular businesses, Brink is able to balance a focus on quality and innovation in its product with the development of the social enterprise which receives some of the profit to treat those with drug and alcohol addiction. This is first and foremost however a great bar with a great atmosphere that can be enjoyed by anyone, whether it's mid-afternoon or 11pm. A refreshing thought.

Sustainable consumption

Happy Planet Green Store, Narbeth

The ritual of shopping sustainably, of taking only what you need, is surprisingly satisfying. Although scoop shops have existed in the UK since the '70's, in those days they were associated with the post-war rationing system and had the quality to match. In the 1980's supermarkets represented the height of convenience to that generation, unaware of the decades of plastic pollution that were to follow.

Places like Happy Planet Green Store in Narbeth, Pembrokeshire are eschewing the spit-and-sawdust reputation of the scoop shop at a time when the idea has taken on new significance. The focus is on great quality food, locally sourced where possible. There is the opportunity of a conversation with the shopkeepers (Tania and Jerry Rees, pictured here), about the produce, or sustainable lifestyles, or the surrounding area. It is a truly local approach to a global problem.

Alongside grains, fruit and veg, nuts and preserves, Happy Planet also stocks green versions of washing powder, shampoo and soap. It carries sweets, wooden kitchen implements, beeswax sheets and biodegradable bin bags. The aim is that people who are adopting sustainable lifestyles can get everything they need there. It is a model increasing numbers of us will take up as the impacts of plastic pollution and waste become more apparent.


Nationwide, Bath

For many of us, internet banking is making banking easier, but the decline in use of the high street stores is problematic for many who live in internet blackspots. Figures compiled by the consumer charity Which? show that the UK has lost nearly two-thirds of its bank and building society branches over the past 30 years.

Nationwide Building Society has committed to keeping its branches open in towns and cities across the UK, and this has meant some soul searching about what needs to be provided on-site. The roll-out of Nationwide's '4C' design concept; convenience, conversation, consultation, and community, has changed not only the look of the building society's interior, but the basic ethos of Nationwide itself.

The community area in the Union Street unit is well used, hosting local meetings, fundraisers, a noticeboard and a play area. Where space for meetings is increasingly hard to find, this is an inspired move by Nationwide - it places them at the heart of the community in the way banks used to be but no longer are. It reinserts Nationwide into the conversation about what our town's high streets need to become, and that's something none of our other banks are doing.

There will be no single answer to the problem the high street is facing, and the closure of department stores will likely leave a scar on the high street for years to come: these are big spaces to fill. Technology, sustainability, localism and the sharing economy will likely figure in the response, and landlords will need to be ready for changes to the status quo, taking more of the risk as new approaches are tried and tested.

BAS Consultancy is working with high streets across the country to develop bespoke approaches to economic resilience. Get in touch if you are responsible for a place and you need help:

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