ONCE upon a time we were the Nation of Shopkeepers, sustained by an even bigger Nation of Shoppers, it appeared.

Now, almost imperceptibly, it seems that barely a week goes by without some crisis or another befalling the British High Street.

Before Christmas it was the woes of HMV. During Christmas it was the diminishing footfall. And now it appears to be everything – from butchers closing because of vegans (around two a week according to a new survey) and a predicted 175,000 job losses in retail as the boom in online shopping and rise of giants such as Amazon continue to take their grisly toll.

The problem isn’t new. Hands up all those who remember the grandly-named ‘Portas Pilots’, the regional High Streets which received a chunk of the £1.2 million handed out by David Cameron’s government in 2012 to ‘kick-start high street renaissance’? A survey by the BBC in 2017 showed that one shop was lost every 22 days in the Pilot towns.

Meanwhile real estate advisers the Altus Group’s annual report claims 2019 is expected to be even more dismal for the high street than 2018, which saw the collapse of Maplins, Toys R Us, and a takeover of the House of Fraser, as well as the closure of a further 17 M&S stores.

And it's not just retail stores. Only this month, the Santander bank announced the closure of 140 branches meaning the rental boards going up in yet more high streets and towns.

Despite the general prosperity of the area to be covered by the proposed new super-authority in this area – the merging of Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch boroughs takes place in April – East Dorset has seen its own well-documented difficulties.

In December it was revealed that Bournemouth’s premier shopping street, Old Christchurch Road, had 15 empty shops within 0.1 of a mile of the Square. Since then, Steamer Trading in Gervis Place has closed, more rental boards have gone up opposite Beales’ flagship department store which, its boss Tony Brown, revealed, was amongst the group’s worst performing over the Christmas period.

Peculiarly, however – and proving what a tricky beast retail can be– the Poole branch of the very same chain was one of Beales’ best performing. And all this was despite Bournemouth town centre being regarded as a national success story for its Christmas Tree Wonderland Trail, which was credited with pushing up footfall by 14 per cent, something which didn’t happen in Poole.

So, what’s really going on in our High Streets? Is it as bad as everyone says? Is it actually even worse? Or are we being railroaded into believing something because it suits other operators’ business models?

The Daily Echo’s reporters and writers have spent the past few weeks gathering as much information as they can about the High Streets that matter – the ones our readers shop in.

And we’ve discovered some surprising things.

Over the next two weeks we’ll tell you about them. We’ll be explaining how the ‘greedy landlord’ is going the way of the Dodo. How you could soon be seeing groovy offices with their even groovier workers occupying what was once a retail store. Why there’s nothing wrong with a shop remaining empty for 12 months, and whether nearly one million extra Christmas visitors translated into a boost in sales for Bournemouth’s town centre stores.

One of the most striking things we’ve discovered is that the High Street of the future will be filled with ‘experiences’, whether it’s as familiar as enjoying a frothy coffee and a cup-cake, to attending a boxing gym, or getting a tattoo.

Guillaume Fiastre, managing director of Altus Group, has said retailers need to invest in new technology and customer service to survive. “Retail of the future will use bricks-and-mortar spaces in a very different way mixed in with leisure and lifestyle residential spaces, for example,” he said.

“The most successful retailers – the survivors – are learning to draw in their customers with the promise of a personalised experience. Technology makes that all possible, but it still needs a strong human element.”

His comments mirror those of Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas, who the Portas Pilots were named after, who said two years ago that she had predicted a ‘continued contraction of town centre shopping in the years to come.’

"We're spending our money on eating out, socialising and wellbeing,” she said. “Therefore we should be building the right places and spaces for the future to cater for how people want to live."

Making this happen is down to everyone, which is why the Echo has been speaking to Bournemouth’s BID – the Business Improvement District whose job it is to innovate for the town, to local councillors, who frequently have the final say on modern projects, to a prominent local property expert, and to retailers in our most successful local shopping areas.

Find out what they have to say – and have your say in the Bournemouth Echo all next week.