Dear Sir Philip - if you want to rescue the British high street, just ask a woman

Sir Philip Green's Arcadia empire has agreed an 11th hour rescue plan which will result in 50 shop closures
Sir Philip Green's Arcadia empire has agreed an 11th hour rescue plan which will result in 50 shop closures Credit: ISABEL INFANTES

IT rather sticks in the craw to have TopShop boss Sir Philip Green mansplaining that the High Street has “fundamentally changed”. Maybe if the discredited Arcadia founder had focussed more on management of his bottom line and less, as it’s alleged, on the bottoms of his line managers, he would have noticed the decline in sales a lot sooner.

But he’s been bailed out and is grumpily gearing up to temporarily abandon his superyacht in Monaco while he sets about reinventing Dorothy Perkins for the hashtag generation.

I’m sure a 67-year-old dude with a chip on his shoulder about the fact the British public “get jealous” at his wealth is just what’s needed to coax young people back into spending their hard-earned in Miss Selfridge. 

The rest of us had clocked the malaise years ago. It’s no good blaming the internet. Or reproaching customers for not supporting bricks and mortar retailers, when shopping has become a bore and a chore because the men who run many of our retailers have no idea what millennials want.

Debenhams is like stepping into an episode of Are you Being Served? where the Grace Brothers lift is stuck between floors in 1976. 

Marks has lost its spark, with acres of floor dedicated to confusing ranges of Grandmumsy trousers and nasty plastic hangers. My friend, incidentally, refuses to set foot in the place again until the flooring is replaced and the lighting made less warehousey. 

Next is the retail equivalent of The Office; reliably, comically dull. Coast is gone, and with it the sartorial hopes and dreams of every mother of the bride in the land. 

While other retailers struggle, Primark has just opened its largest ever store - boasting restaurants, phone charging sockets and a barber's Credit: Primark 

H&M has taken a turn for the Matalan, and if it weren’t for Zara most women I know would eat every single weekday lunch al desko. There’s John Lewis obviously, but that’s a day out in itself, especially if you include a lovely nap among the soft furnishings. It’s like visiting a National Trust property, except there’s nowhere to tie up your springer spaniel. By the way, I’m happy for JL to use that tag line in their advertising, although I’m not convinced my occasional purchase of bed linen and wine glasses is going to lead to a retail renaissance any time soon.

The truth is, I have enough stuff. I made a vow earlier this year to drastically curtail my outlay on clothes and shoes. So far I’ve bought a pair of pink suede heels (no justification needed), a cream sweater from Cancer Research and a smart coat from a car boot sale.

While I may not be the future of shopping, my seventeen-year-old is - and even she finds it a bit of a drudge. For her the term “high street” draws a bit of a blank. It barely registers as a place, much less a concept. The best she could offer me was “It’s where you go to buy stamps or milk and cat food” - no wonder she doesn’t think it needs rescuing.

But it does. For all our sakes; not least shop workers facing the axe as clicks supersede bricks and men in suits cling on to the Field of Dreams myth that if you build it, they will come. Yeah, right. Maybe back in 1989. It’s now 2019, we’ve got Netflix and late opening hours no longer impress; even Kevin Costner knows better than to expect a full stadium when Love Island is about to start.

But there is a shining beacon of 21st retail - a success story others could learn from. In Birmingham, a de luxe Primark megastore has just opened. Hear me out: spread over five floors it features a hairdressser, a barber, an official Disney cafe serving novelty pancakes, WiFi that works, phone charging sockets and water fountains to encourage reuse of bottles. 

Fast fashion fills me with great disquiet, but you can’t fault Primark’s astute grasp of its customer base. Young people want shopping experiences, Instagrammable events. Never underestimate the public’s appetite for Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes. 

This cheap and cheerful mecca has essentially captured the essence of a shopping centre; a place to eat, meet, spend time and money - and it seems to be working. Primark has also just opened a Friends-themed cafe in its Manchester store.

I’m no Mary Portas (although I’d happily be her deputy-cum-enforcer), but I suggest we rip up the rulebook and give our high streets the mother of all makeovers into places people live and spaces where they gather.

Why not inject life in the form of starter flats and social housing for the elderly? Not all social engineering is bad, sometimes the generations just need an introduction and a shared vision.

Every other week there’s a community choir on TV bringing people together, forging links, bringing joy. Cafes taking part in Chatter and Natter schemes, where tables are set aside for strangers to speak, report a phenomenal feelgood factor. It’s easy to sneer, but we have reached a point where loneliness represents one of our biggest health risks - it has been linked to depression, cardiovascular disease and is as damaging to the body as smoking - surely that’s a good a reason as any for trying to effect positive change?

Small independent shops and pubs have just been given a long-overdue cut in business rates; if they were encouraged to offer facilities to voluntary groups, it would foster loyalty and might even boost takings.

Without wishing to sound like The Truman Show, here’s an opportunity to instigate a virtuous circle. Let us show the next generation that there’s a lot more more to shopping than a seamless online retail experience. And, for that matter, a lot more to the high street than shopping. 

Read Judith Woods every Thursday at 7pm at telegraph.co.uk