What will the high street of the future look like and will it transform itself again?
29th June 2021Share
John Timpson knows a thing or two about the high street. The chairman of the UK shoe-repair chain that bears his family name was, after all, entrusted to lead a 2018 government review into what the future UK high street would look like.Though at one time he envisaged a future where the number of shops in British town centres would have halved, he could never have imagined how quickly that revolution would come.
The impact of the pandemic on our towns and cities has, he says, been seismic: “What we have seen is ten years of change on the high street all in one go, but it’s been all the negatives, without any positives,” he explains.
The negatives are obvious – store closures, job losses and empty streets. But Timpson believes there will be plenty of positives to come if local authorities show the imagination to turn their urban centres from shopping deserts into community hubs. “A large number of town centres, if they don’t do something about it, will have a real problem,” he says. “Town centres need to have a community hub, with shops alongside medical centres, entertainment venues, restaurants and cafes – all sorts of things that people will go to.”
Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at customer data business Springboard, also believes the acceleration of the high street’s decline – which has made the case for regeneration inarguable – should be taken as a positive, though she warns it will take some time for the changes to fully play out. “Things were changing on the high street anyway,” she says, “and the clearing out of the old guard will bring in a new guard, with shops filled by residential units, service businesses and entertainment occupiers.” Margaret Taylor
Local, ethical food shops – Retail expert Mark Pilkington, the former chief executive of lingerie company Gossard, says if there’s one thing the online revolution has taught retailers it’s that customers want to feel a close connection to brands whose ethos they feel aligned with. This means a return to a more post-war type high street, peppered with independent stores full of locally sourced produce. Wehrle agrees. “We’ll see things such as artisan food shops coming back to the high street,” she says. “People want to know the provenance of their food and are more socially conscious about supporting local businesses.
Slimline big-brand stores – Switching focus to their online channels in the last year has shown traditional retailers they no longer need to have well-stocked, big-box stores. So, while the big-name retailers that have survived the pandemic are not going to disappear, they will, as John Lewis has already announced, start to occupy less space. Rather than filling that space with piles of stock to be checked out by overworked sales staff, they will focus on what Pilkington terms “hero products” that will be presented to customers by well-trained brand ambassadors tooled up with all the latest technology. And if you like what you see? You’ll go home and order it on the retailer’s website, of course.
Plug-and-play stores – The flipside of traditional retailers smartening up their online act is that web-based shops are starting to see the benefit in bricks and mortar. For landlords losing out when big-name, high-occupancy tenants such as Debenhams go bust, this creates an opportunity. Though most online brands may only want a physical store to showcase particular goods for limited periods, Pilkington believes the sheer number of businesses that could be in the market for such a deal will be good news for landlords. Those that seize the opportunity of subdividing existing units into smaller spaces kitted out with technology retailers can plug their branding into will reap the benefits of this nascent trend
Residential block – It is no secret that a lack of people has killed many town centres across the UK; Timpson believes encouraging them to move back in is one of the best ways to bring high streets back to life. That could involve converting existing buildings into apartment blocks, though Timpson says that, in some towns and cities, it will mean knocking them down and starting again. While that would lead to significant disruption, it would allow for proper town planning to take place, meaning all the amenities a local community needs – such as medical centres, hairdressers and leisure facilities – can be factored in.
Empty units – The long-term vision might be for towns and cities with renewed individual identities, but the reality will take many years to achieve. In the meantime, most high streets will have to get by with empty shops – and lots of them. Part of the reason for that is that rents and rates remain too high for many local businesses to sign up to. Jason Hayward, a retail support expert at Retail Spark, says another reason is that faceless investors who bought up swathes of urban retail space in the 1990s are not ready to consolidate any losses. “So many investors got into the sector because there was massive growth, but we’ve been seeing values slide in recent years,” he says. “There are a lot of pension funds that don’t want to devalue their investments – it’s better for them to sit on empty units.” Unless and until that changes, expect there to be gaps.
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