After years of decline, the Covid-19 pandemic further hammered the high street, leading to boarded up shops and mass job losses, and some to declare the high street “dead”.
But writing off the high street could prove to be unambitious, as, with the help of local government and private stakeholders, the post-pandemic high street could be a catalyst for local regeneration, more jobs, community-led projects, and sociable, experience-led businesses.
The pandemic accelerated changes to the high street that have been ongoing for years. Lockdown restrictions that forced the nation to stay home for long periods of time led to a rise in online shopping, while at the same time, workers who once spent five days a week commuting to big cities spent more time and money locally.
As consumers were forced to re-think their spending patterns, stories of store closures dominated the headlines, with the likes of Debenhams, Jessops and Arcadia – the ex-owner of major high street brands including Topshop – each entering administration.
Some 1,400 retailers have entered administration since 2010 and consultancy giant Deloitte reckons another 30,000 stores could close by the end of 2022.
Surely then, now is the time to re-think and to invest in the future of the humble British high street.
Doing stuff, rather than buying stuff
Post-pandemic, the high street is likely to be “more dynamic, more concentrated and more local,” according to Preston Benson, founder of high street regeneration developer Really Local Group, which works to redevelop local areas, often in partnership with local councils. A recent Really Local Group project saw an old Poundland in Catford transformed into a community space that features a cinema, café, bar and five local food vendors.
There will likely be fewer chains on future high streets – the number of chain stores in the UK has already decreased by nearly six per cent since 2017, according to Deloitte, while the number of independent stores has gone up by nearly three per cent.
Internet cafés could see something of a renaissance, as those that can’t or do not want to commute to work seek working space away from their living rooms and, similarly, more ‘grab and go’ food places could spring up on local high streets, catering for those spending more time working locally, along with more cafés and bars, office supply shops, printers and local IT support businesses.
Places where there is an element of ‘doing something different’ are also likely to become more popular, Benson said, adding: “If you’re not providing something that people cannot do at home, I think you’re going to struggle. People want to feel where they are, that it’s the only place like it.”
Benson’s thoughts echo that of Peter Dobson, CEO of Geek Retreat – a traditional retailer in one sense that sells everything ‘geek culture’, but also offers shoppers access to gaming cafés in-store. Dobson earlier this year told City A.M. high street retailers would soon need to offer something experiential; something the likes of Amazon can’t.
If the local high street is to thrive post-pandemic, it seems inevitable that more space will be occupied by businesses or community spaces that offer some sort of social aspect, or fulfil a necessity – like feeding hungry would-be city workers on a Friday lunchtime.
Nevertheless, those who like shopping in-store shouldn’t be too disheartened; according to Benson, bricks and mortar stores still offer customers huge value, and will remain a high street staple. Online retailer Boohoo, for example, is reportedly in talks about opening a Debenhams store to land deals with beauty and cosmetic brands that want to operate with a physical presence.
It’s worth noting too that major big city high streets, like those found in central London, could require less of a transformation to pull in footfall, as their presence as a destination location means less local regeneration is needed, and businesses are keen to set up shop.
According to Brian Bickell, chief executive of property firm Shaftesbury, which owns 16 acres in central London, including in the West End, Carnaby Street, China Town, Covent Garden and Fitzrovia, the need for “big” shops like department stores in cities is dwindling, but “retailers still want physical presence in the best locations”.
“Size matters and volume of footfall makes all sorts of things possible,” Bickell said. “Prosperous centres will be where everyone wants to be, [and] London is still one of the best retail cities on the planet. Brands will want a presence here.”
Nevertheless, over time Shaftesbury has seen more of its income derived from hospitality businesses, with hospitality now making up around 40 per cent of the property firm’s income compared with retail’s 27 per cent, suggesting even major shopping districts in capital cities are not immune from the shift away from physical retail toward more social-led activities.
The role of local government and stakeholders
The future of the high street could be exciting, with more space dedicated to socialising and community, and more opportunity given to local entrepreneurs.
But the high street’s transformation won’t happen overnight, nor without the backing of private investors and local government.
According to Nick Plumb, policy and public affairs manager at Power to Change, local authorities have an important “enabling role” to play in providing flexible funding to help to create community space on the high street.
For example, he said, local authorities could provide grants, bridging loans or co-invest in properties to overcome early-stage financing problems faced by businesses that want a high street presence, but are put off by the rental costs.
In addition, he said, local authorities could help community businesses to access properties, like supporting the “meanwhile use” of buildings and management leases of high street areas like markets, public spaces, libraries and community hubs, as well as help to connect community businesses with vacant properties on the high street.
For example, he said, in Radcliffe’s, a market town in North Manchester, an old market hall previously owned by a local authority was transferred to community ownership. The change led to a catalyst of re-imagination, and the once dreary space now hosts independent food traders, a bar and boasts live music. The project has also become a facilitator of wider regeneration in the area, with more people now interested in visiting.
Private property developers, high street property owners, businesses and real estate investment funds (REITs) can also take an active role in working with local communities to find solutions for the high street.
Legal & General Investment Management, for example, has invested in the regeneration of Kingland Crescent in Poole to create a new high street for the Bournemouth town, as part of its wider investment in the neighbouring Dolphin Shopping Centre.
To help the high street become more accessible to local entrepreneurs, L&G has committed to providing 10 retail units to start-up and independent business with no rent or business rates to be paid for two years, giving smaller-scale entrepreneurs a helping hand.
It’s no easy feat to reimagine the UK’s high street, but there is appetite for it – more than three-quarters (76%) of people would like to see more community businesses established in their local area, Power to Change said, while 58 per cent reported seeing their town centres and local high street as part of a collective local identity and heritage.
Nearly a third (31%) of respondents reported feeling more loyalty to their local area post-pandemic, while 19 per cent plan to spend more time on their local high street.
“I think if stakeholders from all of these different groupings can come together, then I’m optimistic [about the future of the high street]”, Plumb continued. “There has been a shift in perception in how people view their local area, which gives me hope.”