Why we can’t say goodbye to the high street

The internet makes it easier than ever to do any number of things, but undeniably, one of those things is shop. Headlines often point to the death of high street retail because of the rise of online shopping, but are these headlines a little premature? Evidence suggests so.

If the internet really has made shopping “easier”, then why do we still love the physical shopping experience?

This article will attempt to answer this question, and what it means to retailers and customers alike by addressing three concepts that are at the heart of the high street’s longevity.

Nostalgia & familiarity

A post-internet organic experience



Raj Raghunathan Ph.D. writing in Psychology Today describes the mere exposure effect and how “people develop a liking towards stimuli that are familiar. So, even though familiarity can sometimes breed contempt, it seems that it more often breeds liking.”

We should bear this in mind when considering why high street shopping continues to be popular despite the headlines that seem to suggest that the high street is on the way out. It should also guide the choices of retailers and brands, whose customers and even to some extent employees enjoy the familiarity of:

•       Somewhere they know

•       Somewhere they have memories of

•       Somewhere that they can feel comfortable in

The psychological aspect of the high street should not be underestimated.

At this time of the year in particular, when nostalgia and tradition play such a huge part in a retailer’s success, it’s vitally important for anybody associated with the world of retail, be it a shop fitter, architect or the person running the store, to remember how influential familiarity can be.


This story from The Atlantic illustrates what just how potent familiarity can be. A town which honours the time honoured tradition of buying earmuffs every year means the town’s department store sees “30 times its usual earmuff sales over parade weekend”.


The gross total of online spending in 2014 was $1.5 trillion, according to The Irish Times. In the same article the newspaper lists the pros and cons of online shopping.

Whilst there can be no denying the internet has made shopping even easier, it’s also come with its own costs.

If we consider Raj Raghunathan’s observation that “people develop a liking towards stimuli that are familiar” and apply it to an online space, it’s difficult to see just how far that enjoyment can go. Within a physical shopping space, the external stimuli are so much more varied and immediate, bigger and thus more powerful.

Disadvantage number 6 in The Irish Times speaks volumes about why the high street and a psychical shopping experiencemaintains its appeal: If you buy from big international retailers, where does the money go?

You can, of course, buy from international retailers on the high street, and that still plays into the idea that we enjoy familiarity. However can also buy local.


More and more people are choosing to buy locally for a number of reasons but one major reason, beyond the obvious, is that we enjoy stimuli which are familiar. Of course, many reading this will have grown up in an era before the advent of online shopping, which could cloud our judgement.

An interesting question to pose might be whether or not future generations will consider websites they shopped on as children to have that same nostalgic glow older generations do the physical shops where they first shopped.


Springfield’s local mogul Mr Burns advises the children of Springfield Elementary School that family, religion and friendship “are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.” The notions he points to are age old staples of human society that are undeniably about coming together as one.

Not only is Burns’ line hilarious, it also highlights how lonely he is. Mr Burns’ loneliness is often brought to our attention, but this line illustrates how he believes his cold exterior makes him the perfect capitalist.

In reality, that’s not how we as humans work.


Psychologist Jenev Caddell writing in The Huffington Post argues “independence, autonomy, self-sufficiency – that’s what everyone seems to be striving for”, but she points out:

“We are a social species, and the truth is, we need each other to survive. All of the technology that exists has not eradicated that need from our basic biology”.

The high street shopping experience, as opposed to the online one, if we take the online shopping experience to signify “the technology that exists”, plays into this idea.

Not only does physical shopping mean we get a familiar, nostalgia-inducing sensation which gives us some breathing space from the online world, we also get to connect with others in a more meaningful way which benefits us psychologically.


Although we might downplay the significance of shopping, it is a ritual that we continue to take part in because there are benefits beyond those economists and government officials tell us.

These benefits, in part, are invisible, and often intangible. Take the psychological effects of shopping which we might have dismissed as they are by their very nature tricky to understand.

The physical shopping experience is something we won’t replace with an online equivalent not just because of the things we know about shopping, but also because of the things we might have taken for granted.

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