These modern ghost towns show the danger of an undiversified economy

The Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2015, a decade after Hurricane Katrina. Image: Getty.

Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?” asked The Specials in their classic 1981 hit. Released as riots swept the country, the song was describing the hollowing out of Britain’s cities, as – faced with urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment and violence – many of their residents just left.

In the bigger picture, the trend has long been in the other direction, and the tide of people moving from rural areas to the city seems pretty universal. Ten years ago, for the first time, half the world’s population was thought to live in a city. This is expected to hit two-thirds by 2050; it’s already at around 54 per cent.

Zoom in, though, and look more locally at individual cities especially in the post industrial world, the march of urbanisation seems a lot more fragile.

New Orleans

Unfortunately for the pride and wallets of most New Orleanians, their city is a textbook example of urban decline. When the oil industry, which had supported the city for so long, collapsed in the late 1970s, unemployment swelled and people began to leave.

Post-oil New Orleans failed to diversify its industries: the city fell back to tourism to provide economic support, but that didn’t quite cut it. Since then, poorer areas of the city have become synonymous with ongoing urban decay and depopulation, and between 1970 and 2000 the city’s residents moved out in their thousands, shrinking the population by 18 per cent.

The city’s economic problems were further compounded in 2005, with the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Flooding 80 per cent of the city, it displaced huge numbers of people, many of whom never returned.

Liverpool

The UK has seen its own share of urban decline. The great northern city of Liverpool has experienced some of the worst, with the population of the city proper shrinking by 18.8 percent in the four decades after 1971.

The docks in 1920. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

As in New Orleans, this decline was largely due to the disappearance of what brought people to the city in the first place:  jobs. Liverpool had boomed as the north’s great port, and well into the 20th century the city’s economy was centred around its docks.

But as containers replaced the labour intensive break bulk cargo, unemployment in many dock towns skyrocketed. To make matters worse, many of the industries that the docks had served moved abroad.

Why has the city struggled to move on? One explanation is outdated skills: an in depth knowledge of cargo ships isn’t really going to help you in a bank. At any rate, the lack of jobs has meant that people left – and large swathes of Liverpool were left vacant.

Kitakyushu

Kitakyushu, in western Japan, was once a thriving steel town. It was home of the Imperial Steel Works, whose grandiose name fitted its importance to the industrialising nation.

And the city’s industrial might didn’t go unnoticed abroad. During WWII, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki was actually intended for Kitakyushu; it was only cloud cover over the latter that protected it.

At its peak the steel industry in Kitakyushu employed 50,000 people – but today, it provides jobs for as little as 4,200. As steel production moved to developing countries where overheads were cheaper, citizens were left without a jobs. Despite steady automotive and robotic industries, they couldn’t provide employment for the large number of workers who’d worked at the steel mill.

So, the now familiar story happened there, too: widespread unemployment, leading to depopulation and urban decline. Last month, Kitakyushu’s amusement park, Space World, closed – and nothing screams decay quite like abandoned space themed rides. 


These examples are in no way exhaustive; the list of depopulating ghost towns is long, and economics is often the cause. The common thread here is that all three were one-industry towns. New Orleans had oil, Liverpool the docks, and Kitakyushu steel. But the free-market stripped these cities of their main source of employment, leaving them hollowed out.

Blaming the markets, though, is liking blaming the wind if your house gets blown down: it may be to blame, but that doesn’t mean you can do literally nothing. These cities didn’t diversify when they had the chance – and when their industry left, they declined.

So to all you urban planners out there, if you value the longevity of your city, put on ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and get diversifying.

 
 
 
 

Here are five ways bricks-and-mortar shops can survive the onslaught of e-commerce

Another one down. Image: Getty.

Rarely a week goes by without news of a household high street name shutting up shop or closing stores. The rise of online shopping, or e-commerce, is widely blamed for the demise of traditional retail. Yet people are spending more money than ever – just not on the high street.

In many ways, the offering provided by the traditional bricks-and-mortar store – such as the latest brand to report hard times, House of Fraser – remains unchanged since its inception more than a century ago. They have been slow to respond to the changing social and technological landscape. And today’s customer expects something more.

The digital age has caused a shift in how consumers engage with their favourite brands – we can now purchase online with the convenience and confidence once the reserve of physical interactions. You can purchase almost anything you might desire online, have it delivered to your door within 24 hours, often with the offer of a free return and refund.

But the place for physical retail is far from over. As humans, we still crave a sense of community, which remains relevant to how we shop. Physical stores can become spaces where people engage with each other and a space where the brand has a unique advantage to engage with potential customers. Here are five hallmarks of stores that will survive these turbulent times for traditional retail.

1. Experiences, not products

The world is moving from a more product-based economy to a service one, with an increased focus on experiences. As people spend more money on doing things than buying them, the retail experience must stay relevant. People want highly personalised experiences and experiences which make them feel good.

Successful shops will spend time with and listen to their customers to find out what will meet their needs and make them feel special. This is a key tenet of cosmetic brand Kiehl’s store strategy, which is effective at giving customers a personalised service.

It’s important to recognise that people do not always visit stores to purchase; they can do that online and often shop around for the best price, often using price comparison sites. So the future of the physical store isn’t about the purchase transactions. It’s about creating events, experiences and ultimately creating brand associations, which help create memories – and loyalty – for the customer.

2. Brand advocates

The right kind of staff that are motivated to provide an excellent in-store customer experience will be another key feature of successful stores. Consider the Apple store. Here staff reflect the aspirational elements of the brand, through their appearance, a subtle use of body language, friendly interactions and addressing customers on a first-name basis. This all leads to a sense of community, reflected in the “Genius Bar”, which acts as a customer services team that isn’t sales focused – it’s purely there for customer support.


3. A place you want to stay

Colour, smell, music and layout are all crucial elements of the customer experience. People do not want infinite product choices. Research shows that too much choice can even leave us feeling confused and unhappy.

Then there’s the fact that you often know what the store sells before you go in and that there any numerous computations of stock online, which can be delivered to your homes at the touch of a button.

The shops of the future will focus on in-store design and ambience that make you feel good being there. Stores will reflect the brand’s identity, which has encouraged customers to enter it in the first place. But, more than this, they should make the transition from online to offline not only crucial, but exciting.

Not only will this make you want to stay for longer, you’re more likely to post about it on social media, creating an electronic word-of-mouth effect.

4. A frictionless experience

In-store experiences of the future will be interactive and seamless. This might be through music, art, technology or even coffee. Stores will have more of a hospitality focus than traditional retail. There will be no hard sell and you’ll be encouraged to browse, chat, laugh – even take pictures.

Successful stores will make you feel relaxed and comfortable, so that the prospect of a purchase is a secondary concern. If you do buy something, it can be done easily, without having to queue at a till. The importance of physical stores can be seen in Amazon’s move into bricks and mortar, but not in the form of your average shop. The retailer’s high-tech Amazon Go store uses technology to track your purchases, removing the need to scan items, let alone waiting to pay for them.

5. Rewards for your time

Shops will recognise that people entering their premises have very different motivations from ten years ago. People do not need to shop on the high street anymore so. when they do, it will come with rewards for their time. Not necessarily physical ones, but an enjoyable experience that makes you feel good.

The future of retail is about social interaction. Customers want to be entertained, engaged and emotionally stimulated. Physical stores must enable consumers to have positive experiences. This may be done through creating an element of surprise for customers, perhaps through art, in-store pop-ups or virtual reality. If stores can surprise and entertain their customers, then they are more likely to develop an emotional connection and keep them coming back for more.

Claire McCamley, Senior Lecturer in marketing, University of Huddersfield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.