Learning the lessons of the high street through the ages

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been tuning in to the BBC’s Turn Back Time – The High Street. It’s a fascinating insight into the changing face of retailing over the past 100 years, but also a stark reminder that the high street is facing some of the same challenges now as it has done for the last century.

The six-part programme follows the shopkeepers in the town of Shepton Mallet in Somerset through the ages. The aim of the “living history experiment” is to uncover the history of the high street and how we got to where we are today.

There’s also some stark messages about how important marketing is to the success of any retail business.

It’s fascinating to watch Shepton Mallet develop and the shopkeepers react and reinvent themselves to keep up with the changing demands of the consumer.

The programme starts out with the Grocers, the Butchers, the Bakers, an ironmonger and a dressmaker. Throughout the ages, we watch as they are overtaken by a supermarket, a convenience store and a record shop.

It’s sad to watch the demise of traditional stores in the 60s and 70s as they are replaced by their modern counterparts and the impact this has on society, but the same is still going on today as high street stores lay empty, unable to compete with the supermarket giants.

Not only do towns lose the small business and skilled tradesmen on their high street, but they lose the sense of community as friendly shopkeepers on first name terms with their shoppers are replaced by faceless organisations and disconnected communities.

What becomes clear though, from the shopkeepers observations and their customers, is that supermarkets are not necessarily the bad guys.

The people of Shepton Mallet are sad to see the butcher and the baker struggle to survive and tears are shed as they close down, but they are the ones choosing the convenience and cheap prices of the supermarket over the quality products and personal service offered at smaller stores.

The high street couldn’t survive in the 60s without the support of consumers, and it can’t now.

In the concluding episode last night, (8 November) Greg Wallis, otherwise known as the shouty celebrity chef from Master Chef, finds that the businesses that did succeed throughout the process are those that used marketing to increase trade, however modest.

Those that created a buzz around their high street shop, were those that did better than the others.

If ever it was true that we could learn lessons from the past it’s now and I would recommend anyone in retail to take a look at the series and I guarantee you’ll take something useful away about how to talk to consumers.

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