Then & Now – A Brief History Of The High Street

Oxford Circus circa 1904. Pic: Leonard Bentley/Wikimedia Commons Oxford Circus, London – circa 1904. Pic: Leonard Bentley/Wikimedia Commons

For any creative agency vested in retail and hospitality design, the high street has always held particular significance. Its evolution, through both prospering and difficult times, has presented unique opportunities and challenges for designers. In the first of two articles discussing the high street – from birth to rebirth – Phoenix Wharf’s Managing Director, Chris Gwyther takes a look at its history with a particular focus on the role of visual merchandising in an ever changing world…

The Edwardian period is quite rightly regarded as one of the golden ages of retail. It’s the era when visual merchandising, window dressing and modern retail as we know it came to be. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Harry Selfridge and his department store, which opened on Oxford Street in March 1909.

That time was also all about excellent service. Harry Selfridge himself is believed to have coined the phrase: “the customer is always right.” Whether in shops or restaurants, the experience was personal to the consumer. The service was top notch and about going above and beyond. The way the staff presented themselves, their knowledge and their courtesy towards the customer all played a key part in gaining the advocacy of loyal shoppers.

A lot of these ideas had evolved from Victorian times. Increased urbanisation and lack of space in cities meant that people were no longer able to grow food or keep livestock themselves and there was a demand for shops, who quickly expanded their range of wares. Shopping arcades, with their distinctive iron or glass covered streets, had been built since the early 19th Century, but though the passages were visually appealing the shops themselves were less inviting. Even so, this was the birth of the shopping experience.

Another key influence came from the world fairs, starting with The Great Exhibition of 1851 in Crystal Palace. These were consumer shows which enable shoppers to come and view products and new technologies. Retailers at the exhibitions soon learnt that if they presented their goods in an appealing way then they’d be far more successful, creative branding could help drive sales. Displays would be themed to reflect the part of the Empire the goods came from and to create a luxurious atmosphere for the customer.

Selfridges Christmas 1944 Selfridges, Christmas 1944. Pic: Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons

All of these lessons were taken on board by the department stores, first in Paris with Le Bon Marché but also in London, by Selfridges for example. The appealing aesthetics of the arcade was continued inside the stores and an attention to visual merchandising was essential. Themed campaigns, clever window design and in-store displays were just as important as what was being sold. There was an awareness of retail space design as a concept. Selfridges even went as far as displaying Louis Blériot’s monoplane from the first cross-Channel flight to bring in a crowd of thousands. A brand environment was being used to entice people in, to differentiate between offerings and to reflect the quality of goods on sale.

There are always peaks and troughs and the devastation caused by the two world wars, and the World Depression of the 1930’s, meant that consumers disappeared for certain periods of time. What then emerged in the second half of the 20th Century was the dominance of multi-chain retailers, which evolved from the large department stores. The same large multi-retailers began to open up in different places and the high street changed from a predominantly independent arena where each town and city was different and catered for their local population.

Consumerism grew rapidly in the 1960’s, at the same time as improvements in warehousing and distribution, and as a result every high street started to look the same. Whether you were in Bristol, Norwich or London there would have been a Woolworths, a Boots, a WH Smith and a Mark & Spencer. Another big change came with the emergence of the shopping mall and the advent of white box retail.

Selfridges, Christmas 2009. Pic:  Rept0n1x/Creative Commons Selfridges, Christmas 2009. Pic: Rept0n1x/Creative Commons

Every store looked the same and the chief concern was about maximising merchandise rather than the customer experience. “Stack it high” retailing became the model. Small independent shops weren’t able to compete with the big multi-retailers. If a large chain was going to do a refit they could offer contractors 100 stores and independents just couldn’t compete in terms of the quality of their stores or their buying power. At the same time the growth of out of town retail parks was also sucking life out of the high street. The big multi-retailer had held the monopoly for so long that they didn’t see change coming and they kept selling/ stacking high without any engagement with the customer. The importance of brand design and retail store experience had all but been forgotten. There was no real need for people to come into the high street as a recreational activity, it was merely a necessity.

Two factors brought everything tumbling down; the rise of the internet/eCommerce and the global financial crisis of 2008. One of the biggest victims was the high street, to lose retailers as established as Woolworths, JJB Sport and Comet was a big shock at the time but it was indicative of how complacent they had become and how far removed they were from the needs of the consumer. Internet shopping had replaced the transactional requirement of physical shopping and the high street had lost its purpose. Reinvention was needed and the widely recognised catalyst was the genius of the Apple Store…

Genius Bar in Apple Store, Regent Street, London. Pic:  Maebmij/Creative Commons Genius Bar in Apple Store, Regent Street, London. Pic: Maebmij/Creative Commons

Next, Chris turns his attention to the future of the high street. Follow up article coming soon…

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