I was both delighted and dismayed to read last week about the creation of the government led, Future High Streets Forum.

If you haven’t heard about it, the forum brings together leaders across retail, property and business to ‘advise government on the challenges facing high streets and to help develop practical policies to enable town centres to adapt and change’.

Sounds fantastic I thought. Clearly, the high street is suffering. We’ve seen a number of big name casualties over the last couple of years (and many thousands of smaller independents go under that receive little or no publicity). A walk through my home city of Brighton provides evidence enough that all is not well with the high street with boarded up properties aplenty.

Therefore, a group that includes high-level representatives from the likes of Alliance Boots, Costa Coffee, John Lewis Partnership and The British Retail Consortium, with a remit to ‘focus on future high street renewal’, must be a good thing.

But then I read the fine print…and sighed…heavily.

The elephant in the room

In its first meeting, co-chaired by Local Growth Minister, Mark Prisk, the forum discussed the Mary Portas Review and the progress made off the back of her recommendations.

Now, I’ve made no secret of my views around the Mary Portas review (and I am not the only one). Whilst the report noted the role that the internet has played in changing consumer behaviour, it was too easily dismissed as ’one of the key threats to retail on our high streets’

As such, of the 28 recommendations put forward in the review, not one made reference to the role that the internet (and mobile) can actually play in helping to solve many of the problems Mary Portas cited.

So with the creation of the Future High Streets Forum, here was a chance for a new group of carefully selected individuals to address the big, white elephant in the corner of the room: digital.

Yet the news release on the gov.uk website, outlining the role of the forum and the main areas of discussion at the first meeting, doesn’t mention the word ‘digital’ at all. Neither does it include the words ‘online’, ‘internet’ or indeed ‘mobile’.

Instead, those stalwarts of local government policy, ‘planning’, ‘parking’, and ‘property’ make up the lion’s share of the rhetoric.

Now I’m not saying these things are not important. I am sure changes to policies that have perhaps been inflexible and prohibitive in the past can make some difference.

But when are the ‘powers that be’ going to wake up, stop dismissing the internet simply as a ‘threat’ and instead acknowledge that it has a fundamental role to play in high street regeneration?

A proposed agenda for the next forum meeting

The role of the forum appears to build on the Mary Portas Review, rather than challenge it.

With this in mind, can I be so bold to suggest one or two questions for the forum to discuss at the next meeting that, in my view, will start getting to the real crux of the issue?

For example:

  • How has the internet changed consumer habits and behaviours? For example, is to too straighforward to assume that consumers have simply ‘swapped’ the time spent on the high street for their laptops, mobiles and tablets? (Clue: the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’)
  • What do consumers really care about? Is parking, for example, a real issue in consumers’ minds?
  • How have the leading retailers utilised digital technology and online marketing initiatives, in tandem with their in-store strategies, to increase awareness, customer acquisition and improve experience?
  • How could small businesses (cost effectively) utilise digital to complement their traditional routes to market?
  • What role could mobile applications and gamification play in driving footfall and engagement?
  • What policies, processes and guidelines could be put in place to support digital innovation in small retailers?

I don’t claim to be a retail expert but I have been in digital marketing for a long time. It took me five minutes to come up with a few questions that would be interesting (and relevant) discussion points.

Clearly, it will take longer to come up with the answers but to do so you need to be asking the right questions in the first place.

I do understand that many of the initiatives outlined in the Portas Review are aimed at small or micro-businesses, such as market holders. But it would be ignorant not to consider how digital can play a part in helping even the smallest of businesses thrive.

Perhaps I am wrong in assuming that digital is not on the forum’s agenda. But if it turns out that the forum is simply an extension of the Portas review, criticised by so many for its ignorance to digital’s role in high street regeneration, than my concerns might not be misplaced.

Luckily, the private sector looks to be ahead of the game. For example, a new market place for pop up shops, Appear Here, has recently launched that makes renting unoccupied retail space much easier. It is outside the box, creative thinking like this that will really make the difference in my view.

Or we could all just bury our heads in the sand, rather like this retailer in Australia. Sick of showrooming, it now charges for people to enter the store. Somehow, I don’t think this is the answer.

What do you think? Is the Mary Portas Review, and the apparent remit of the forum, enough? What questions would you recommend are discussed at the next meeting?

If the goverment and the High Streets Forum (and you) want to find out more on how digital can help offline retailers, check out our How the Internet Can Save the High Street report, which contains valuable advice for retailers that Mary Portas missed. 

Other related reading: 

‘Showroming’ image courtesy of BarrettFox, Reddit.com

‘Elephant’ Bitboy via Flickr

‘Closing down’ image courtesy of Gwydion M. Williams