What would Napoleon make of Britain’s nation of shopkeepers today?


When Napoleon describe us a “une nation de boutuquiers” or “a nation of shopkeepers” he touched upon a unique cultural trait that defines our society to this day. For hundreds of years, we have relied upon commerce and not the extent of our land or population to generate the nation’s wealth.

However – have you taken a walk down your local high street recently? It’s not an inspiring sight with up to one in four shops boarded up in some areas and more independent retailers being forced to pull down the shutters every week.

Whilst it’s often easy to see this simply as an economic issue, there’s more at stake here than just the financial implications and lost jobs.

Our high streets are an intrinsic part of our social and cultural identity. If we allow them to vanish, we are not only depriving communities of their livelihoods, we are depriving them of their social and cultural heart.

So what do we do?

The first thing we need to do is fundamentally change the way our high street retailers think. This starts with overcoming the online retailer complex:

Online retailers are spending fortunes trying to conquer social media and become ‘friends’ with their customers. Yet high street shops are failing to take advantage of the fact that they already enjoy a level of social engagement that Amazon would kill for.

It often seems that whilst online retailers are doing everything within their financial, technological and marketing capabilities to humanise their brands, our high street retailers are doing the complete opposite, believing that they have to dehumanise their social engagement and just fight a price war.


As a shop owner, you have people walking in and out of your store every day. Engage with them! It’s not all about the immediate transaction and getting people in and out as fast as possible. It’s about building a relationship and reinforcing the high streets position as the dominant social centre for your local community and by virtue the economic rewards will follow in time.

Make people feel welcome and wanted. Yes – even the young. Remember today’s teenage shopper is potentially tomorrows high earner. And unlike most adults, teenagers often have a higher amount of disposable income to spend.

Remove the inference that everyone coming into your store is to be treated like a potential shoplifter. It makes people feel uncomfortable and more inclined to walk out of your shop without opening their wallet. The high street shopping experience should be ‘communal’ and welcoming.

Many of us will remember a time when a trip down your local high street was a social event. You would meet friends and neighbours in the shops and on the street. You would chat and gossip and the high street was that facilitator and whilst there we would be comfortable and we would buy. The person in the shop would more often than not know your name and be able to tell you if something new had come in that you would be interested in.

In marketing talk, people developed a behavioural trend, taking in a circuit of shops and a new shop on the high street was an attraction and not another flat pack clone.

Your mission isn’t to simply compete against online retailers, it’s to offer people a shopping experience on the high street that leaves online retailers in the dust.

People don’t come to the high street for the best price (although online isn’t always the cheapest or the most convenient); they come for the experience.

They come for the human interaction and the spontaneity of spotting something they like and being able to do all those tactile things that the web just can’t let you do, like pick an item up, try it on and ask your friend / partner what do they think? The high street gives people a genuine tactile shopping experience.

Dispelling the online price and convenience myth:

Retailers will often lament that they can’t compete with online retailers on price, but the truth of the matter is that most people don’t expect you to. They are happy to pay a small premium for the ‘convenience’, yes convenience of high street shopping.

And there in we dispel one of those other popular urban myths – online shopping is in many respects far less convenient than popping down your local high street for a purchase.

For starters, it’s not very easy to try on a jumper or check out how your bum looks in a new pair of jeans when you’re online. And as much as online retailers try, the online shopping experience remains an impersonal and cold transaction that can often leave you pulling your hair out when the transaction suddenly freezes and you’re left unsure if it has completed or not.

Then there’s the inconvenience of having to sit and wait for the delivery and the problems that can cause if you’re not there to sign for it or when the product does arrive and its not what you ordered or its got damaged in shipping.

The high street offers people a simple select, purchase and returns policy that doesn’t involve emails, calls, repackaging and trips to the post office and another lengthy wait for a replacement. So long as you are within your consumer rights, the high street will normally be able to replace or refund there and then.

So take heart high street shops. The web is a wonderful invention but high street shops

Stop papering over the cracks:

News flash! People do actually care about their high street. That’s right. People care. No one wants to see their local high street boarded up and run down. Councils are doing their best to try and brighten up our abandoned high streets with fake frontages, new footpaths and a host of other civic programmes, but retailers need to pitch in.

Start with giving people something other than the flat-pack, clone shopping experience that has come to define so many high streets. Our high streets were once amazing places, unique and embedded in the norms of the local community. Today they are generic clones of one and other. Think different. Think interesting. Think that there is a website called www.notonthehighstreet.com for a reason.  Make your high street unique and not just another carbon copy of the next town over and the one over after that too.

Also – rather than installing fake frontages let us use that money to encourage local entrepreneurs with an idea that will add to the visitor attraction of our high streets.

In reality, all fake frontages do is paper over the problem. Our high streets need substance and not window dressing if we hope to encourage shoppers back off their laptops, tablets and smartphones and back into real shops.

The High Street has always faced competition:

Apathy has helped bring about the current demise of Britain’s high streets with shops often taking customers for granted. Indeed there was a time not so very long ago when the shopping centres and out of town stores really struggled to attract people, but they worked at it and through persistence and a constant re-evaluation of their strategy, they did it. Whilst the shopping centres evolved, unfortunately all too often the high street stood still. The same has been true with the rise in online shopping. But if you remember, long before online shopping, the high street still faced competition. Many of us will remember the days of Kays and Empire catalogues and yes, Littlewoods Catalogue as well. That massive phonebook sized publication that allowed you to order whatever you liked without going any further than your post box for as little as 25p a week. Yet the high street survived.

From online to on-high street:

Yes the high street has taken a beating and rates are too high and the carrier bag tax probably wasn’t the most helpful idea from government. But there’s still a steady pulse to our urban heart and our high streets can come back.

So the mission for our high streets in 2014 is to reclaim their position as the social and cultural heart of our communities and embrace the online Ogre under the bed instead of fearing it. Rather than replicating the cold online transactional experience, tailor the medium to offer exclusive in-store only discounts and updates on in-store events to your customers. Capture people’s attention online and reel them into your shop for an on-high street resurgence where your search engine is a happy smiling shop assistant behind the counter who can tell you where you can find a blue jumper without having to wade through 73,600,000 possible results.

So come on high street – the next move is yours! 



  1. Eric Dawson

    I understand that in several boroughs of London the High Streets are being reclaimed by residential -type property which in turn breeds community with its resulting cafes, restaurants and small shops. After all it is only in the last 40 or 50 years that such streets were turned entirely over to retail and commerce and residents driven out by developers and high rents. Shouldn’t that happen everywhere? The cycle turns after all.

    • themissioncontrol

      An excellent point Eric. The architecture in many of our smaller towns do indeed remind us that a lot of ‘commercial’ properties were adapted from ‘residential’ dwellings over the years. I’ve come across some examples in the United States of community groups buying up empty shops/stores and repurposing although some developers have so overpaid for premises during the boom days that they are content to just let them sit in the hope that the value will return.

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