Town centres are being hit by a ‘youthquake’ that must be embraced if the high street is to avoid extinction.
That was the stark warning delivered to traders and decision-makers from across West Sussex at a Let’s Talk About Our Towns event at the Worthing Dome last Wednesday.
It was part of a series organised by West Sussex County Council and independently hosted by the editorial director of this newspaper Gary Shipton.
National experts warned huge changes driven by a more socially conscious youth were unavoidable and planners had to react quickly in order to survive.
Fashion designer and town planning expert Wayne Hemingway said it was time for high streets to become ‘radical’ in their approach.
“We are in a youthquake,” he said.
“Young people are behaving in a revolutionary way and that means change. They are the first generation who are less well off than their parents – a generation who want change, deserve change and we need to listen to them. They know change has to happen and they will force it whether we like it or not.”
Wayne, an MBE who founded fashion label Red or Dead, said young people were more influenced by sustainability and ethics than their predecessors.
Rather than the retail-centred arcades of betting shops and faceless chains, towns were driving towards community hubs based around charity shops and the sharing economy – spawned from 2nd hand goods websites like eBay and Depop.
With Wayne’s prediction of a more socially aware youth, and the internet often cited as the scourge of the high street, it was no surprise to see the spectre of social media looming large over the event’s talks and workshops.
Keynote speaker Ojay McDonald is the chief executive officer of the Association of Town and City Management. He described the world of social media as a ‘parallel universe’ which was already dominating retail trends.
The level of change on the high street was ‘pretty scary’, he said, and pointed to the rise and fall of the iPod within the space of two decades as a marker of how quickly trends can come and go.
“In less than one generation we have had a change that’s completely transformed a retail sector and become obsolete,” he said.
According to Ojay, social media influencers were the new ‘middle men’ in retail, capable of making or breaking shopping trends.
Children, for example, are now less likely to wander round a toy shop to compose their Christmas lists and will instead turn to YouTubers like Ryan’s World – a toy review channel featuring eight-year-old Ryan Kaji that has over 33billion views and tens of millions of subscribers.
With children becoming computer literate almost as soon as they are out of nappies, it was up to retailers to harness the power of social media and the influencers that dominate it. The average cost of an advert on an Instagram post was now around £1,000, he said. For a YouTube advert, the average price stands at around £5,000.
The popularity of websites such as Instagram makes the power of the image another important consideration. Ojay raised the example of the dessert store boom – Worthing has seen several open over the last 12 months – with young people flocking to get the most Instagrammable picture of their fancy pudding.
Dessert parlours were staying open until late at night and making most of their money in the evening, he said, driven by the youth’s quest for a strong social media presence.
But rather than fear this brave new world, decision-makers were encouraged to seize the opportunity for change.
Reflecting on the move towards community-minded town centres, Wayne Hemingway said it was up to local traders to band together and carve out their own niche.
Traders’ associations were key, he said, formed of local people who could capture a town’s unique identity through community events and targeted schemes outside of broader town planning.
“Towns are becoming something that comes out of the community and something that is making things for the community,” he said. Rather than online shopping and social media heralding the arrival of a detached, digital world, they could instead bring communities closer together and make towns more aware of their own special identities.
Let’s Talk About Our Towns’ take home message was that West Sussex is an area filled with unique, industrious, close-knit communities of which we can be proud.
If we can stand together and embrace an ever-changing landscape, with progressive, targeted investment from forward-thinking local authorities, our town centres can be thriving social hubs once again.