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  • Writer's picturebenstephenson

Sub-postmasters, retailers and other high street workers are unsung heroes of social infrastructure

The sub-postmasters scandal has been an important reminder of the position in the community those that work on the high street hold: relationships with customers are much more than the merely transactional writes BEN STEPHENSON.

By now we can agree that the 'evolving not dying' message works well to counter the 'death of the high street' narrative we see every day in the press.

But there are towns across the UK which may not recognise the benefits of high street evolution, at least not yet. They might see their places reflected more accurately in this 2013 prediction from Robert Noel at LandSec: 'There are towns in this country that may never see retail occupiers coming back into their high street again'. 

For many the decline of retail on the high street doesn't seem like such a bad thing. One of the prevailing views is that the high street needs to evolve away from the purely transactional, to meet the broader needs of the local population - for social connection, for services, for learning and for living.

We should be careful to recognise however that retail itself has always provided some of these broader functions. The high street must continue to adapt, but shops mustn't be written off as anachronisms, destined to be replaced: they play an important role in many people's lives, and in the life of a place.

Of course, not all high street experiences are the same, and some can be depressingly robotic. The reintroduction of the manned checkout in supermarkets and the poor performance of 'novel' retail concepts like Amazon Fresh is evidence that this form of shopping is less enticing than initially predicted. Isn't that what internet shopping is for?

For this reason it's important to ask what function the shop, post office, bank, or pub performs, and for whom. Ask yourself the question - 'who uses this place every day, and who would be saddened by its closure?' 

The high street presences that perform a social infrastructure role are not always obvious. Placemakers should remember that different presences on the high street are valued by different demographics, and the temptation to recreate the high street in their own image is easy to succumb to.

It might be possible to quantify - even score - the 'social stickiness' of a high street presence. Post offices, corner shops, market stalls, delicatessens, bookshops, hairdressers and hardware stores are all important to people not just because of the products on offer but because they are frequently visited and there is likely to be the opportunity for conversation. Because of these factors, there is an opportunity to develop a relationship with the shopkeeper which goes beyond the transactional.

The ITV drama 'Mr Bates vs the Post Office' depicted this relationship admirably, showing the large numbers of South Warnborough residents attending court to vouch for the character of their sub-postmaster Jo Hamilton after she was wrongly accused by the Post Office of stealing £36,000. The Post Office in this case is seen as part of the fabric of everyday life, not just a convenient service provider.

The relationship between customer and shopkeeper is the thing that creates this stickiness. Talk about the 'experiential' and 'brand authenticity' in retail is a reductive way to describe something that has real meaning for people. When these relationships are lost, something significant is lost from the community: local confidence in the place wanes; people retreat into nostalgia.

And at a time where technology and public funding cuts mean that valuable social connection is more difficult to come by, we need to start thinking of this almost as an alternative form of currency. If we accept that one of the functions of town centres is to support social connection, there is a further need to consider the relationship between market forces and social forces as drivers for high street evolution.

Those that say that social connection isn't the job of retail fail to understand the vital connection between successful retail and successful places.

BAS Consultancy works with places to develop their vitality, build their mission and identify the leaders that can make transformation happen. Contact Ben Stephenson to talk about your place at

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