The plight of the struggling high street

Physical shops need to adapt to the times

Image of the Westgate Centre, where the Cinnamon Kitchen has recently opened. Source: Flickr

When I started studying in Oxford in 2015 to commence my degree, I noticed a stark different between the city centre and my hometown, Ipswich. For years, shop after shop in Ipswich had been closing and been left vacant. Oxford on the other hand was booming, without a single empty premises in sight. This has changed. They’ve not closed down, but rather moved into the brand-new Westgate Shopping Centre.

I personally love shopping in Westgate. Everything is under one roof, there are places to eat and drink, all the facilities are there, there is a gorgeous rooftop terrace… It is much more practical than traipsing around the city, going to different shops on different streets. Is this laziness? Possibly. Its a marker of the modern age; we want convenience. We expect to have everything at our fingertips. This is why online shopping has become so popular. Rather than searching through racks of clothes for your size, you can simply click a button.

But this comes at a price. High streets up and down the country are suffering with many premises being left empty for years on end. High streets have become full of pound shops and bookies, while big chain stores are moving into shopping centres – often located out of the centre.

In order to save the high street, something the government is considering is a two-tiered VAT system in which people would pay more tax when buying online. The current VAT rate is 20%, but proposals suggest lowering this to 15% for purchases in physical stores, while online purchases would carry a higher tax rate of 22.5%.

Currently, online stores have an unfair advantage as they do not have to pay massive business rates on physical properties and they do not tend to need as many staff. The proposed two-tiered VAT system could level out the playing field as it would provide people with a strong incentive to shop on the high street in order to get the same products for cheaper prices. Colliers International, one of the largest property consultancies in the UK, are the main advocates of the proposed two-tiered tax system. Sometimes dubbed the ‘Amazon tax’, many firms and financial experts, including Colliers International – one of the largest property consultancies in the UK – believe that the higher VAT rate for online shopping could save the high street.

However, is this artificial manner of supporting high street shops really beneficial? Can we really blame online shopping for all of the high street’s woes? The real issue here is that most high street stores are outdated. Nowadays, people want – and expect – a slick service. Stores and brands which are embracing modern technology and innovations are those most likely to survive. For example, clothing store Topshop has trialled augmented reality smart mirrors which allows customers in the store to try on different colours and styles of clothes. Meanwhile, a Nike store in New York has added a treadmill with monitors which simulate various virtual reality locations and mini basketball court, so that customers can see what they’d really look like in their potential new purchases.

Virtual reality, artificial intelligence, holograms and more all provide a much more engaging, exciting shopping experience which encourages people to visit physical stores. Bricks-and-mortar stores no longer cut it: people want clicks-and mortar.

Of course, it is not just the shops themselves on the high street which need to be up-to-date. The town and city centres themselves must also be appealing. Oxford’s Westgate attracts people because it is modern and stylish. Local Councils need to invest money in renovating their town/city centres to make them inviting. Basics such as sufficient and affordable parking, clean toilets, and greater disability access to new interactive features will help keep the high streets bustling.

We cannot fight technological advancements; rather we must embrace them and incorporate them into the more traditional aspects of our society. Online shopping is not an evil that is destroying the high street, but a form of shopping it must operate alongside.

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