It's Time to Rethink Our Main Streets

Telling people to shop local isn't enough. They need more experiences, less stuff.

street view in Montreal
Street view in Montreal, Canada.

Linda Raymond / Getty Images

A few weeks ago, a neighborhood in Toronto launched a campaign to show what it would look like if all the local shops closed, due to lack of business during the city's latest lockdown. A short video posted on Instagram reveals storefront after storefront, windows covered in brown paper that reads "for lease." 

It's a shocking and dismal scene that caught my attention as soon as I saw it. It is riveting precisely because that scene is everyone's nightmare. Nobody wants to live in a neighborhood where all the stores have gone out of business and are boarded up. The takeaway message from the video is to shop local as much as possible to keep these businesses afloat.

I'm all for shopping local and have committed to buying my Christmas gifts this year from local businesses (not a single thing ordered online), but I can't help wondering if the directive to shop local puts too much onus on shoppers alone (not to mention driving unnecessary consumerism), and not enough pressure on municipal governments, business councils, and policy-makers to rethink the way our main streets operate. Shopping local won't save the main streets because, realistically and unfortunately, the online giants aren't going anywhere. What we need are newly designed, newly revived main streets that offer something they never did before.

Mary Portas is a retail expert from the UK and former advisor to David Cameron's government on main street revival in 2011. She doesn't see the COVID-induced loss of main streets as being totally tragic, but rather an opportunity to innovate and respond to what people actually want. The main street's demise was already happening before COVID struck, and now people are overly nostalgic for something that is no longer relevant.

What Portas would like to see is an emphasis on experiential shopping, something that stimulates and entertains people in a way that online retailers – and their handheld devices – cannot. She describes this as "injecting more theatre and excitement" into main streets in an effort to create a place where people want to go. Physical stores need to offer unique attractions like "excellent service that can’t be replicated online, expert knowledge, or a space where people like to get together."

Ethics matter greatly to the modern-day shopper, as well. Portas cites market research that found "77% of people now say they value decency in business as much as price and convenience," and many are willing to forego trips to distant shopping centers in order to feel better about purchases they make closer to home. Half of the shoppers surveyed earlier this year said the fashion industry should do whatever it can to become more sustainable. There's a risk that if brick-and-mortar stores don't start reflecting these values, people will seek them out online. 

People want to relate to brands and feel good about their mission, so the stores that are going to do best are the ones "with an overarching philosophy that involves some kind of contribution to making life better." A company's commitment to social responsibility "trickles down to what sticks on high streets, where the most successful will offer a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and wellbeing," Portas says.

Physical stores need to become more fluid and flexible. Landlords should loosen and shorten their lease agreements and be willing to change interior appearances rapidly to allow for pop-ups and small new boutiques to start immediately. To quote retail expert Mark Pilkington in the Guardian, "Instead of six months of fitting a store, this way a business would 'plug and play', so that a space could be a pop-up for a well-known brand one day and a yoga studio the next."

Additional advice from Pilkington is to offer free parking as an incentive to shoppers, but I disagree. I think that going to the other extreme and making main streets as pedestrian-friendly as possible is a better approach because then the street becomes a destination and experience in itself and more shopping will result from people's increased presence. 

Speaking personally, I gravitate toward communities where I know pedestrians are prioritized and have planned shopping trips around that knowledge. Blue Mountain Village in Ontario, Canada, is one such example of this, as is the village of Bayfield, ON, which decided to close its main street temporarily this holiday season to attract visitors. After seeing that announcement on social media, that's precisely where I headed with my kids for a much-needed outing last week. (It's close to our home and also in a region that has only partial restrictions due to low COVID case counts.)

Blue Mountain village
A view of Blue Mountain Village at night.

K Martinko

A resilient main street needs a mix of retail, food, culture, entertainment, and wellbeing. I'd add nature, too, in the form of shady trees and flowers, outdoor play spaces for children, and spaces for musical and theatrical performance. This would draw people faster than anything. 

We've been focused on retail alone for too long and it's time to explore bold and innovative alternatives for what can make these dwindling spaces more attractive and appealing. Together we can save our main streets, but let's look forward to do it, not backward.