Looking ahead – The future of the high street

Published by Richard Spofforth on 17 June 2020

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As part of our Looking ahead series, Richard Spofforth looks to how COVID-19 will accelerate change on our high streets.

The high street has been under increasing pressure for many years. Brands that have underpinned our retail experience for decades have disappeared and changing retail and leisure habits have put the future of others in question.

Traditional bricks and mortar retailers have struggled in the face of more convenient and often cheaper online retailers. And then, in what can only be described as a perfect storm, COVID-19 temporarily closed the high street down completely.

But what lasting impact will COVID-19 have on our high streets?

Online shopping has been a staple for many of us well before the COVID-19 lockdown. The weekly supermarket shop delivered, regular packages from Amazon left in a ‘safe place’ together with the many thousands of specialist online retailers which are firmly established household favourites.

And now, COVID-19 has left even the most infrequent online shoppers on first name terms with their regular delivery driver. Online retailers have been quick to build trust and confidence in their offering and the habits that have been formed over the past decade, and accelerated since March this year, are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

But will COVID-19 leave our high streets redundant, a ghost town of boarded-up store fronts? Probably not.

More than just a place to shop – shift towards experiential and destination retail

Over the last few years, we have seen a shift towards experiential and destination retail. This shift whilst right for pre-COVID-19 might now be difficult to follow through with as shoppers are forced into a new sterile environment with enforced circulation and queuing, taking the joy out of shopping and dining. Will retailers need to develop a new model around value and limiting exposure to other shoppers? – Canterbury, Horsham, Chichester and Brighton are just a few examples.

Whilst a return to pre COVID-19 habits may be slow, I believe they will return. Many of us crave the return of browsing the shelves of a bookshop, hunting down a bargain, or enjoying a flat white or lunch in a busy restaurant with friends.

However, many smaller high streets that sit in the shadow of larger towns that were already in decline before the COVID-19 pandemic are, without radical thinking, likely to face uncertain futures.

So how might we inject a new lease of life into the high street?

One interesting development to come out of the lockdown has been the return to, and necessity of, hyper local shopping. We have embraced farm shops and the farm gate with a renewed passion. It would be a shame to lose that. Yet here lies opportunity. Landlords with empty units might look to help take these hyper local retailers to a larger market. High streets might look to reinvent the shopping experience with a local and quirky retail offer.

Landlords will naturally play a major role in reshaping and redefining high streets. The 25-year lease is fast disappearing, being replaced by short-term lets and rents linked to turnover and footfall. But they will need to do more. An anchor tenant – a John Lewis for example – will naturally act as a draw for other retailers, but that may not be enough. Space needs to be reimagined. Retail needs to be combined with a strong leisure and hospitality offer. That may mean a greater number of pedestrianised streets and outside dining, particularly in the short term with social distancing requirements remaining in place.

Local authorities will have a large role to play and will be required to think creatively. That might include the rezoning of retail to residential, turning declining high streets into truly mixed-use spaces. Local residentials will support, albeit in a smaller way, local retailers, and even more so if it combines a local or quirky offer.

Could your salon also have a florist, card and/or coffee shop inside? Will retail stores include hairdressers, barbers, or a bar? What do your customers want from their high street experience now? What do they go out for?

Business rates, long a cause for concern for traditional bricks and mortar retailers, will need a radical rethink. Just as landlords adopt rents linked to turnover and footfall, perhaps it is now time for rates to follow. We recognise that this will be politically challenging for many local authorities who will naturally wish to preserve local high streets, but I am sure they will be up to the challenge.

Wave of entrepreneurialism post COVID-19

Retailers are innovative, and I believe we are likely to see a wave of entrepreneurialism emerge post COVID-19. Established retailers will look to reshape their offer, and new challengers will emerge. The high street will remain an important part of our society, but it will in many instances look quite different.

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