Changes in the way people shop, the retail industry, economic and social factors are all currently conspiring to fundamentally the traditional high street format.
Recent analysis shows that 1 in 10 retail outlets across the country are now lying empty and to be honest a walk down any UK high street quickly backs up this stat.. Whilst every high street has lost the stalwarts that have gone bust; Woolworths, BHS, Toys R Us and Maplin, only the more affluent areas are managing to keep the likes of Topshop, Monsoon, Debenhams and Mothercare as these chains enter into CVA insolvency processes to close stores and seek lower rents – effectively enabling them to exit suboptimal areas while retaining other more profitable stores.
The most often cited reason for the ‘death of the high street’ is that consumers are choosing to shop elsewhere… online and yes people are shopping differently – a report this week from Retail Economics predicted that half of all UK retail sales will be online within the next decade – up from one fifth today and British Retail Consortium’s monthly footfall tracker has highlighted that June 2019 experienced a seven year low on high street footfall, dropping 4.5%.
But its not only changing shopping habits, lowered footfall is undoubtedly impacted by the economic uncertainty the ‘no deal’ Brexit cloud hanging over the country and there are also wider social and economic issues at play. The loss of industry in smaller town centres has moved workforces to major cities along with their retail spend, rising business rates, public transport and parking have all also contributed to the move away from high street footfall.
There has also been a big increase in restaurant business insolvencies, rising from 985 in 2017 to 1,219 in 2018. These include standalone restaurants but many are the private equity backed chains such as Prezzo and Carluccios who expanded fast into many high street locations but are now sitting empty as diners feel the economic pinch.
So if the big stores and restaurant chains are closing up shop on the high street – is there anything taking their place? There are but it’s a rather small scale and eclectic bunch; vaping shops, mens barbers, locally made artisan food stores and plastic free supermarkets!
So with the traditional high street format rapidly evolving – what could we expect our UK high streets to look like in five or ten years?
As shopping habits have evolved it is now recognised that to attract shoppers to leave the comfort of their own homes (and online shopping) high street stores have to offer a social/lifestyle element. The more progressive high street stores are already introducing experiential concessions to attract shoppers – I’m thinking of the UKs recently opened Primark superstore (link) which has made a trip to the store an event in itself – with themed cafes, barbers, and even a “snap and share’ room where groups of friends can take in as many clothes as they want, set the lighting and the music and then film and photograph themselves on their phones and upload them to social media.
In Edinburgh the old House of Fraser site has been taken over by Johnnie Walker and has received planning permission to create ‘The Johnnie Walker’ experience. Split across 4 stories and with a rooftop bar delivering a whisky tour experience – tours which are normally only available in the countryside now in the city centre.
Whilst this works in a heavily tourist driven city like Edinburgh it’s unlikely to be a possibility for cities without the same heavy tourist footfall.
This amalgamation of social, retail, and lifestyle experiential outlets to my mind isn’t just the store of the future but is actually a blueprint for the high street of the future. And is it possible? Well the UK government appear to be on board having pledged to support the regeneration of high streets by investing in physical infrastructure (transport, roads etc) and residential and workplace densification around under used retail outlets. The big question will be after so many people have left our city centres to live in the suburbs over the past 20 years will they now want to come back? This is likely to be key to the success of the regeneration of our high streets and it’s not a quick or cheap fix.
What Now For The U.K. High Street? – Forbes