High streets are important, both for community and for place. They help define an area as being more than a collection of homes, but over time many they have lost their way, and yet shopping malls wouldn’t be around today if it wasn’t for the high street.


 My childhood was spent in a small town in North Devon. My local high street had free parking, but it was only a 15 minute walk from home, it had 2 cinemas, record shops, food shops, clothes shops, shoe shops, 1950’s style diners, ‘ye olde tea shoppe’, general stores, toy shops, 3-4 sweet shops, fishmongers, butchers, ‘fruit and veg’ shops, bakers, (note the plurals) stationers, amusements, book shops that specialized in certain different types of books, a library, restaurants, lots of bars and hotels and various markets. The signs were often hand painted, real works of skill, there was pride in how the shops looked and how goods were displayed. What worked especially well was that the bakers were close to one another, ‘fruit and veg’ shops were close to one another and all the restaurants were grouped together. The pavements were narrow, but because similar shops were nearby (and we used our own bags back then which were easier to carry) it made it easier to shop. The high street was logical, it made sense, the service was friendly, we knew many of the shop owners by name, there was a feeling of community and it looked great. If a shop didn’t have what you wanted, they would order it for you.

In addition to the small shops, we had two small supermarkets, one called Liptons, and another called Gateways, which became Somerfield, which later became the Co-operative. We didn’t have a large out of town supermarket and just before Christmas, to get more choice and see the big city lights, we drove 60 miles to the nearest ‘big town’ that had numerous high streets with large exotic stores like Debenhams.

That 60 mile trip was a treat. We got to eat (what then seemed) exotic foods like Kentucky Fried Chicken, the department stores were large and backed onto shopping centres which were undercover, warm and had exciting indoor playgrounds for kids. It was exciting but tiring and the large bags filling the boot of my dads Morris Marina estate (which we parked in one of the many car parks located near the shops) promised an exciting Christmas morning.

We had our two options. We were happy with that. We had our daily shop in our local town, and our special treat before Christmas, a 60 mile trip away.

But they were still basically high streets. Choice wasn’t anything like it is now and people didn’t have the same levels of disposable income.

Over time supermarkets opened large stores on the outskirts of town with free parking. These were followed by large tin sheds selling electrical items, furniture, DIY goods and toys which all took advantage of being close to supermarkets. They had big, bright, new signage and seemed modern and fresh.

The local market town, a mere 13 miles away ended up having everything you needed or wanted and got it’s own shopping mall with all the big brands people talked about and an abundance of choice. We would now drive to do all our weekly shopping at the supermarket, then go to the other large tin sheds, then, if we needed to, go and pay to park in the market town to visit brands like M&S, or Marks & Sparks as my mum used to call it. The less time we spent there the better as parking was expensive.

Then, another thing happened. We started getting supermalls. Huge spaces that sold cd’s, dvd’s food, clothes, shoes, had 1950’s style diners, toy shops, sweet shops, supermarkets that contained fishmongers, butchers, ‘fruit and veg’ shops etc. All the places to eat were in the food court, all the places to buy food were grouped together and there were places for kids to. Parking was free and they had multi screen cinemas. At the supermarket checkout the cashier would smile and ask ‘hello, how are you?’ while staring at a keypad.

By now we hardly ever visited our local high street, unless we met friends in a café. It started to look shabby. Signage started looking loud and gaudy, shop windows started being plastered in offers and lists of what shops sold. Some shops closed, to be replaced by charity shops. Before long there was only one baker, one butcher etc and the food shops and restaurants were scattered through the town. The council installed parking meters despite a petition against them by residents and shop owners. They knocked down one of the two cinemas to build sub-standard buildings and hard to rent shops. Rent and rates seemed to be based on the surrounding areas rather than the town centre, so many shops closed and remained closed. The shops that remained didn’t change, didn’t adapt and didn’t look at the competition. When shops did open, they spent as little money as possible on how they presented themselves.

Shopping malls offer more choice, entertainment, convenience and excitement than our local high street, our local market town, the big town centre 60 miles away and even the tin box stores near the supermarkets. They spend a lot of money on store presentation, the shopping environment, customer service and research to find out how we shop and why we buy. The shopping experience is bigger. Malls are the new high streets. We meet people there, buy food, clothes, presents, homewares, furniture and electrical appliances there. When you are finished you can go to the cinema. Best of all, you don’t get wet, or cold. Even the car parks are under cover.


 Matthew Hopkinson, director of the Yes, tims night , which researches retail trends, said the 888 shopping centres they monitor are doing well.1 At the same time high streets across the UK are struggling.

In order to understand the success of shopping malls, it’s important to understand the differences between them and your average high street. The main difference is management.

All shopping malls are managed, they decide what brands go into the mall, where they will be situated and target businesses to fill gaps when an existing business moves out. But in a high street, when a shop becomes vacant, any business within that shops classification can move in, or they can apply to change that classification. There is no order, or regulations to protect the layout of the high street.

Many markets, which are also doing well, are also managed. They don’t allow too many stalls to sell the same things so there is more choice. What is sold there is regulated. Sometimes they specialize in niche products such as crafts and antiques. Niche products attract niche buyers. The rents are kept at a level that will attract the right sort of businesses. But on a high street you can find many brands repeated, sometimes on opposite sides of the road.

Supermarkets are managed. What they sell is very tightly regulated, how it’s presented, the packaging  is designed to give a certain type of feel, the fishmonger, butchers and deli counters are all next to one another. Morrisons is designed to feel like a high street under one roof. One section is actually called ‘Market Street’.

The biggest issue is that a high street is a supermarket under many roofs, but they often don’t act as one. There are too many landlords all trying to squeeze as much, rent as possible out of every unit, too many individual shops too busy to be part of a strong traders association, and not enough council officers to bring the traders together to help form a strong, singular group to fight for the high streets interests.

The strongest high streets, we find, are the ones with a strong community, civic and traders groups. Often they have engaged with residents associations and have a good sense of who they are and the sorts of businesses they need to attract. These traders groups often have a much stronger influence with the council.

Once a high street has a traders group, it has a voice and business and community are engaged, then it can start to act for it’s own good and manage it’s own affairs. Without this, any ideas or momentum will fizzle out.


 There are a number of steps high streets can take. All high streets are different, so what may work for some, may not work for others. Here are some ideas.


1. Define what you are or what you want to be.

    When people shop, unless it’s something they need, they are buying something they want. If it’s something they want, it’s an emotive purchase. Because it’s emotive, it’s important to get the feel of the high street right. How it makes people feel will have an effect on their shopping behavior. Shopping malls are brilliant at this. Bluewater in Kent has leather seating and makes people feel pampered and special. How do you want your high street to make people feel? The shops in the high street are also important. In shopping malls, when a unit becomes empty, it isn’t neglected and left dirty, covered in fly posters and stickers for security shutters. It’s left clean, often the front of the store is made into an advert for the retail space. There is no reason why high street’s can do this and harness local creative talent to make it happen. Shopping malls target particular businesses to fill voids, but high streets happen haphazardly. You don’t find 13 hairdressers, 10 nail bars, or knock offs of KFC in a mall for good reason.


2. Develop a niche.

    Get known for doing something really well. Some malls focus on being outlets for end of season stock, like Atlantic Village in Devon. Other high streets are known for antiques or food. Charingcross Road used to be the place to buy books, Carnaby Street where there were cool clothes. It’s easier to sell a niche and attract like-minded buyers who like the idea of something different and good choice. Careful management can stop it being a victim of it’s own success where higher rents drive out the very shops that made it successful in the first place.

3. Check out the competition.

    Is there a shopping mall near by, or another town to see what you are competing with? What can you do to either compliment what they offer, or to offer what they don’t?

4. Build loyalty.

    Supermarkets have loyalty cards, but (in my opinion) there are too many of these. My wallet is clogged up with various cards, many of which I don’t use. Some high streets already have their own currency. It’s possible to develop phone aps, which work via simple QR codes by the till to shop special offers, get loyalty points or similar. An app is easier to carry around than a loyalty card and the collected data possibly invaluable for small businesses. It also means that special offers could be sent via text, or even just friendly messages from your favourite local stores.

5. Be more than just a high street.

    Many shopping malls have events that are linked to shop promotions. Christmas events, games for kids, famous people turning on the Christmas lights, ice rinks, fun fairs, anything that is relevant and adds to the shopping experience in a positive way is a good to copy.

6. Worry about how you look.

    1. Shopping malls spend a lot of money cultivating their image, the stores inside shopping malls do the same. Shops are clean and made to look as attractive as possible. Many shops on high streets totally ignore how they look. Roller shutters make them look like industrial estates rather than shopping areas. Signage is often damaged, poorly designed or ill conceived. This is one area which high streets can outdo shopping malls. If shop fronts are original and there is a historical angle to the town centre, then don’t change the shop front. Enhance it, make the most of it. Ensure that your shop looks like it belongs in the street and the building. Shopping malls often have standard signage or very strict guidelines for how shops and shop fronts work. Instead of just following the councils guidelines, we think high streets should draw up a bespoke guide for individual high streets to give them a unique character. In the Victorian age, all high streets would have their own signwriters and glass cutters who would have their own style and help give an area a particular look.

7. Find your way around.
Shopping malls often have great signage and wayfinding. They will code different sections of their carparks to make it easier to find your car at the end of the day. To make it easier to find your way around a high street, include a shop number and possibly even the street name on every shop. This is especially helpful if the street signage isn’t very clear. Perhaps it’s worth zoning the street into different areas and have meeting points incase people get lost. This could even be a café which offers a safe haven for lost children (and possibly access toys to keep them amused while they wait for their parents). The same would work for information points in case a crime has been committed. Shopping malls have these and they work.

8. Reduce clutter.
Shopping malls are very clean. They don’t have lots of clutter or old broken banners and estate agents boards on the upper levels of the shops. High streets shouldn’t either. Lobby your local council and estate agents to get boards and other unnecessary clutter removed. You could even try to lobby your council to ban estate agents boards in high streets entirely. If possible, get shops to mount hanging signs in the same position on every shop on the pilasters or shop sign.

9. Promote yourself.

    1. Shopping malls run many advertising campaigns and promotion, especially around certain events. This advertising may be on radio, social media, TV or billboards. Youtube is a good source of getting video in the public domain and there are lots of good local filmmakers. Make a video exceptional and it will spread virally. There is no reason why high streets can’t do this either. Clubbing together to advertise on a billboard locally to tell people that you exist (if you are passed by), or communicate a surprising fact or offer that will bring people to the area is a good idea to copy. You will find these near shopping malls. Get friendly with the local press, PR is fantastic advertising, get a website so offers are online with a directory of stores or consider having a local publication or space in a council newsletter to promote events and offers.

10. Find out how long people want to park for, don’t impose a time.
Most shopping malls offer some form of free parking, usually for the first 2 hours. Many high streets only give 30 minutes free, but that doesn’t allow shoppers to do much. Supermarkets and shopping malls have done all the research, sometimes it’s best to copy them. Find out how people shop in the area and how long they want to park for rather than just imposing a borough wide parking policy that is site specific.

11. Small is the new big.

    Many large brands would love to appear small and friendly. Sainsbury’s point of sale material is handrawn, a lot of supermarket packaging is hand drawn or illustrated, from Innocent to Charlie Bigham, from Tesco to M&S. Supermarkets spend a lot of money researching and developing trends, so it’s looking at. Even monolithic brands like Starbucks now have different store environments so they don’t feel overly corporate. Small high street brands should learn from this. Using local artists, designers to make your business bespoke, small, intimate, friendly and unique is exactly what many large brands can only dream of. Making your business über local can make people love you, which builds loyalty.

12. Be convenient.

    High streets often don’t have great toilet facilities. Shopping malls excel in this area, and they do it for a reason. Just keeping toilets clean is a good start and helps with the perception of a small business and the high street in general. Community toilet schemes are also a good start. Putting clear signage in shop windows to communicate what facilities such as baby changing are available is another good step forward. Adding this information to the directory on a website, local phone app or local store directory is another.

13. Cater for all pockets

    Supermarkets offer a good, better, best buying strategy. Every store has it’s value lines, mid tier and ‘Finest’ equivalents. It works. High streets can do the same, either by offering a variety of shops that have different offers or within individual shops themselves. It’s easy to understand and proven.


 Shopping malls are high streets under one roof. They have taken over from traditional high streets, capitalizing on the convenience of travelling by car, parking, baby changing, eating, space, warmth, are properly managed and in general, are destinations, a day out for the whole family.

This doesn’t mean that high streets can’t compete with them. I truly believe that high streets can. But unless high streets start acting as one and think like shopping malls, to make themselves a destination rather than just a collection of small shops, they will struggle to increase footfall and build loyalty. A united voice is much louder and is more likely to be heard.

But high streets shouldn’t try to be a shopping mall. High streets should embrace their difference. They can be cheeky, friendly, funny and engaging. Sometimes it’s good to make a virtue of a negative point. Perhaps high streets should start shouting a bit louder about what does make them different, that they aren’t shopping malls. They are real shops owned by real people. Perhaps more shops should start putting the owners name above the door to highlight this fact rather than hiding behind a sign that says what they sell or how cheap they are.

One big advantage that high streets have over shopping malls is that, with an abundance of independent shops, it’s easier to change, adapt and be genuinely local. If high streets play to their strengths, the ability to cross sell (a restaurant selling local fish or meat from the butcher 3 doors away), cross promote with loyalty cards, friendly service, local events, the ability to act quickly to local issues and act and think locally and just be different and offer what the malls and supermarkets don’t, then perhaps once again malls and supermarkets will learn from the high street.

Each area is different and there is a trend to embrace difference and local character. The shopping mall will always win on convenience, but they can’t fake heritage, local knowledge, and personality. Westfield in White City feels different to Bluewater which feels different to Lakeside, and yet the brands inside the malls are all very similar. But they all have different signage, branding and furniture. High streets often have generic street furniture and branding that falls within councils guidelines rather than expressing the unique character of the street.

In El Salvador in Latin America they seem to erect a new mall every few years and they are all different and distinct. ‘La Grand Via’ is laid out like a street and is known for al-fresco eating. Plaza Futura is beautifully designed and has mostly restaurants with an incredible view over the city and comes alive at night with views of the city lights. Multi Plaza has lots of trendy clubs and bars. Galerias has clothes shops and boutiques. Plaza Mundo is more everyday and has many discount stores.

The way the high street can fight back is to take from the malls the things that they do well and scale and adapt them to be fit for purpose. But don’t try to be them, be yourself. High streets should play to their strengths.

There is a lot of movement towards this already with the Portas pilots and various high street funds in London. The idea of town teams is a huge step in the right direction. We have seen some great local high street traders groups that are doing fantastic work and making huge differences to their local area with the support of their local councils.

Hopefully this momentum can continue. Hopefully it will build. Hopefully, one day, shopping malls will have to look at high streets once again to see what they can learn.

1 source BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19243052

Designed By Good People were invited to submit this article to Henry Stewart Publications who published it in the Journal of Urban Regeneration and Renewal Volume 6 No 2.

Republished by kind permission of Henry Stewart Publications.

Lee Newham & Ariana Palacios Newham

Designed By Good People Ltd.