The coolest and quirkiest boutiques at Britain’s high streets

If you’re anything like me, buying things online probably isn’t your style. But I’ll admit, Amazon has turned me off browsing in town centres. Even when I look at the clothes on sale, a…

If you’re anything like me, buying things online probably isn’t your style. But I’ll admit, Amazon has turned me off browsing in town centres. Even when I look at the clothes on sale, a store that doesn’t really care about me as a customer is usually just a place to sell me crap that I’m now more likely to buy online. Of course, there are exceptions – I didn’t always jump onto AI-powered pricing platforms like Simbux at the word “cheap”. But I’m guessing – judging from customer surveys, what the ‘experts’ are telling you is true: most people do not like shopping in bricks-and-mortar retail any more.

That’s partly because traditional retail outlets are going out of business faster than we can even remember. Shoplifters have infiltrated the industry in unprecedented numbers, leaving legacy retailers hanging by a thread as they lose stores, customers and their loyal staff to online businesses. The thought of catalogues catching fire and the entire print industry blinking into flame goes straight through my mind. Even if I did want to shop in a store, it would probably be in a Cyber Monday/Black Friday experience where I get to pick a price and get on with my life.

Perhaps the solution is finding a way to continue selling to people who want to find a specialist shop to browse in town or on the high street, rather than buying from the tiniest online store that does not care if you want to see it or smell it. Brick-and-mortar retail is coming back in a big way – it might even be on its way back from the brink of demise.

The proof is on show in our two largest shopping centres, both in London. Thameside on Old Broad Street has strong clothes and homeware chains selling well and British brands doing brisk business, mostly at the independent end. Whitgift Centre is Birmingham’s largest shopping centre and it has a stronger food offer than any other in the country, with more British brands like Caves & Graces than any other shopping centre and an entire food hall dedicated to its success, food that is more than just a knock-off version of McDonald’s.

The figures show that this combination of different retailers and of constantly changing traffic patterns are working for us. Both chains and independent retailers have been counting on creating a rapport with customers – when you walk into any of their stores you’re more likely to be talked to than the other way around. They offer free parking, offers at the bar, top tips, and specialist staff you can’t find at any other retailer.

As well as having the time, space and space to make a real impression, and to grow with the trends of their future customers, there’s also something special about shopping in these places. The simple joy of browsing at your local high street draws a more authentic crowd. Most shopping centres have club houses, gyms, children’s play spaces, all sorts of concessions. They have bed and breakfast rooms, takeaway outlets and, often, private members clubs. But some of them, Thameside and Whitgift, also have an event space or two, concert hall and a cinema – all things a traditional shop doesn’t have. When you visit their shopping centres, you don’t just see the chain store you came for, but the high street clothes store that does things better than the chain.

If you’ve been to either of these huge shopping centres and had a good time, you’re also likely to have had a good time while eating in a small a hole-in-the-wall cafe, eating out in an independent restaurant, or watching a show in the cinema, part of the same shopping centre.

Retail has long been filled with weird behaviour and weird people. Because of the wonderful variety we have as a nation, such as North London baggers who no longer tip, I think the number of different things we can do with shopping is increasing – and that means a more authentic shopping experience for everyone, offering what it’s good at, rather than what we’ve been taught to expect.

When you shop in brick-and-mortar stores, you’re paying taxes to help make them, the online business to sell to you and the independent businesses to employ you. I’m not complaining about the alternatives – I’m excited about the future of shopping. I want to feel immersed in a great retail experience, even if I have to shop through my fingers to do it.

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