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HomeLondon NewsThe business environment is changing in Harrow and across the UK

The business environment is changing in Harrow and across the UK

Just about every town in the UK has a high street. It often is, or forms part of, the focal point of the municipality. It’s a place where people have traditionally come to buy their groceries, meet their friends, and enjoy a bit of retail therapy.

But as your elderly relatives probably never tire of telling you, our high streets have seen better days. Empty units, a lack of character, and a declining footfall are all evident whenever you walk along the main artery through any British town.

But why is this and what is being done to address it?

The Internet

The internet has completely revolutionised the way we do just about everything. From banking to entertainment, our habits and preferences have evolved radically in just the last two decades.

Many people are quick to point fingers at the internet being responsible for the decline of the high street, but this isn’t entirely fair. Businesses that have been able to adapt to the changing trading environment have thrived.

For example, Argos has used its national network of stores to provide same-day delivery or instant click and collect on thousands of products, beating even Amazon for speed.

Similarly, brands like Primark have embraced making products and stores more eye-catching and “Instagrammable” to help encourage customers through their doors.

Of course, it’s not just shopping that’s changed because of the internet. Since the early 2000s, online casinos have grown exponentially as they’ve given millions of people access to games that they previously wouldn’t have been able to play without having to travel long distances.

Today, the market is incredibly competitive, leading some casinos to create their own exclusive games like Rosella’s Mystical Spins and Kraliens so that they can stand out from the competition.

The growth in online gaming hasn’t come at the detriment to physical gaming establishments though. In fact, they have actually increased in number over the same period as the internet has helped to create new demand rather than spread existing demand more thinly.

On the other hand, demand for library services is down in many areas. Back in 2005, around 48% of those in England said they visited a public library.

However, as of 2019, this figure had declined to 31%. Much of this can be attributed to easier access to information online and the ability to order books from sites like Amazon and have them delivered to your door within a day.

The business environment is changing in Harrow and across the UK Harrow Online
Credit: Unsplash

Out of Town Retail Parks and Paid Parking

A bigger draw on high street footfall is other physical alternatives. At present, most town centres charge for visitors to park their cars, mostly because local authority landowners need to increase their income to offset funding cuts.

This drives shoppers to out-of-town alternatives where parking is free and access is easier. Retail parks typically offer bigger and better shopping experiences than high streets too, making it difficult for the traditional town centres to compete.

The town centres that are successfully competing are the ones that can offer something different to their visitors, such as independent stores, unique cafes, and entertainment venues. The cities of Chester and York are prime examples of this; both have thriving centres because of one-of-a-kind shops and cafes combined with unique architecture that people come to admire.

Harrow has begun to implement this approach. In 2021, the council began commissioning artists to paint unique murals on buildings to create a more vibrant atmosphere for shoppers. Initial feedback to this has been positive, but we’ll need to wait a little longer before we can measure its long-term success.

Business Consolidation

Shuttered shops are the main problem, but they are by no means the only factor. Some people bemoan the lack of character in many high streets which have almost become generic shopping precincts comprising the same chain brands.

Larger businesses benefit from a phenomenon known as economies of scale. This is the principle which means the unit cost of an item decreases when you buy it in larger quantities. It happens for two main reasons: bulk manufacturing has lower overheads and other associated costs, and buying in bigger volumes gives you a stronger negotiating position.

For this reason, many small independent businesses have been unable to compete with larger brands. This has driven many of them out of high streets or out of business completely, leading to cookie-cutter high streets with the same chain brands.

There has been a reversal of this in more recent years though, as consumer demand for unique products, services, and experiences has increased, helping to make small owner-operated businesses like cafes and artisan shops viable.