Hit the bricks | Monocle

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Give anyone a pencil and a piece of paper and ask them to sketch a plan for a neighbourhood they’d like to live in. They’ll draw some houses, a train station, trees – and some cute shops. Most likely these will be dotted along a single street; what we in Britain like to call a high street.

We instinctively know that high streets serve a purpose beyond a place to buy bread or post a letter; they are also where you go to look in windows, escape your four walls and feed off the buzz of humanity being, well, humanity. High streets are civic spaces and done well they provide a physical and metaphorical backbone for a community.

But that back has a few aches to contend with. In the UK, according to a report by the British Retail Consortium, one in eight shops is empty, laid low by a rough economy, changing retail habits and also some shoddy shopkeepers who think that just because they stock a few essentials the public owes them a living.

It’s a story that’s repeated across North America and much of Europe – especially outside of vibrant city cores (you won’t find many “shop for rent” signs in Woollahra, SoHo or Mayfair).

It’s worth, however, unpicking this a bit. Yes, some shops are foundering as we stop buying CDs, rely too often on only Amazon for our books, get our groceries delivered or abandon the high street for the drive-and-park ease of the out-of-town supermarket. Yet it’s those terrible shopkeepers who also have to share the blame. Shopping should be enjoyable, staff should be nice and product offers innovative and well-displayed, but too often it’s a grim experience.

And that’s where this issue on the future of retail comes in. You may have guessed that we believe in bricks-and-mortar shops. monocle has them around the world because it gives us face-to-face contact with you, our readers, and lets us be a part of those communities.

So this month we have been on a shopping spree to meet people reinventing retail and making it fit for 2013. That does not mean turning to tech wizardry or a crazy reinvention of the notion of what a shop is. Rather, these are clever rethinks and subtle shifts that understand how to make a business that does the basics well. It’s about the shopkeeper as civic leader, rebel, pioneer, entrepreneur and seller of tasty loaves.

Shopping list

  1. High streets need to be run by people with a singular vision and the power to force through change. A strict landlord is better than a bunch of shopkeepers who cannot agree on anything, from where to put up the Christmas lights to how much to spend on advertising.
  2. Neighbourhoods should use shopfronts in innovative ways: some can become small offices with just a couple of desks, some ring-the-bell homes for services such as architects’ offices, others will be able to tick along as regular bars and shops. But the commercial world should be able to contract and expand as needed.
  3. If you want your community to flourish, should you and your neighbours be running the show? Lots of shops – especially in rural areas – are being taken over by community groups that are determined not to lose the place that binds their neighbourhood together. Why can’t you help?
  4. Retail should be enjoyable and easy.
  5. High streets need to be places that stay alive after sunset with bars and restaurants.
  6. The shop is not dead but the lazy shopkeeper most certainly is.

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