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The future of high streets

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What can an inner city, comparatively-deprived area of London teach us about the future of high street retailing? Plenty it appears.

Walk down Rye Lane in Peckham and you will find a mobile phone retailer squeezed into a space no bigger than a cubicle. Neither his location nor shop front is special, yet this retailer pays £1000 each month for the privilege of doing business. Per square metre, that’s the equivalent of a Knightsbridge shop rental – the most expensive in the world.

High footfall, face-to-face interaction, and retail agility sustain small retailers such as these.

It’s not an unusual story along this high street, in one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the UK, where there are over 20 different countries of origin among proprietors and 28 per cent of traders speak four languages or more.

Linguistic skills are not the only asset the traders bring to this street, where social and ethnic diversity contribute to an emerging direction in retailing, according to urban ethnographer Suzanne Hall.

Hall, a lecturer and researcher at LSE Cities, has been studying city streets in London for more than five years.

Her focus has been on rapidly urbanising, poor and racially segregated areas, such as Peckham’s Rye Lane, the subject of a project based at LSE Cities, Ordinary Streets.

Rye Lane, an intensely active retail strip in south London, is occupied by successive waves of immigrant traders who have adapted their markets and bazaar spaces to meet retail needs and aspirations in London.

These include an assortment of small, independent pop-up shops, not bound by the strict regulations of fixed rental leases but characterised by flexible, innovative retail practices.

It’s an unconventional approach but it works, Hall says, with many Rye Lane traders enjoying good turnovers and repeat business, notwithstanding the impacts of the recession.

URye-Lane-4-120x120K retailers were battered in the global financial crisis, forcing many commercial property owners and traders to adopt new business practices just to survive.

“The recession took its toll on the high streets, but in ways that many people did not anticipate,” Hall says. “Many established chain stores disappeared from the high street. However, in London many independent shops have remained comparatively steady. Research has shown that since 2006, before the recession, there has been a 78 per cent increase in independent convenience stores in London.”

Rye Lane’s make up is indicative of this trend, reflecting a diverse cultural mix of retail with a high percentage of independent shops.

“The varied approaches to staying in business in tough times are entrepreneurial and practical,” Hall says. “You have stores specialising in halal meat and a range of food-specific products to cater to particular markets, but one of the biggest growth areas has been in the hair and nail, and money remittance sectors.”

Hall cites the case of two resourceful Afghani brothers who have rented a large retail space in Rye Lane and subdivided the shop into numerous small businesses, offering flexible rental leases and micro retail spaces. For example, chairs in hair and nail bars are rented for a week at a time, an arrangement which seems to suit both parties.

“In the case of a hair and nail proprietor, they can purchase their products cheaply from India and China and can literally start a business from a bag with £100 worth of products. If they are good at their business and can pay their rent, they are able to extend their lease for another week. If not, they are out. They are not bound by a fixed or long-term contract, which is very often a significant constraint when starting up a shop,” Hall says.

This temporary occupation of shops, allowing traders to dip their toes into the retail market in an experimental and low-risk way, has not only been driven by the financial crisis.

“In very densely populated areas, well served by public transport and sustained by migration, there is a real need for much smaller retail spaces and flexible rental terms. Having an abundance of small stores co-located with one another appears to make good business sense.

 “The vitality of high streets such as Rye Lane should encourage policy makers and local boroughs to really look at different kinds of innovative retail mixes on high streets. These streets signal that one of the futures of retailing in this country may lie with more socially diverse and unconventional approaches.

 “It’s not just a question of looking at the economic success of places such as Rye Lane,” Hall says. “It is also understanding and respecting the diverse cultural and multi-linguistic values of these retail strips.”

LSE Cities will host a conference, Word on the Street: City vocabularies of migration and diversity, on 10 October 2013, looking at ethnically diverse high streets in the UK, Europe and the United States. For more details go to their website|: http://lsecities.net/objects/research-projects/ordinary-streets

Useful notes

Dr Suzanne Hall is an urban ethnographer who teaches primarily in the Cities Programme within the Department of Sociology at LSE and is a Research Fellow in ‘Cities, Space and Society’ at LSE Cities. 

Her research and teaching interests are foregrounded in local expressions of global urbanisation, particularly social and spatial forms of inclusion and exclusion, urban multiculture, urban migration, the design of the city, and ethnography and visual methods. 

She is currently leading the Ordinary Streets research project, a visual and ethnographic exploration of the economies and cultures of street in the context of urban migrations.

More details on the Ordinary Streets research project can be found at http://lsecities.net/objects/research-projects/ordinary-streets|

Uploaded August 2013

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