What will the British high street look like post pandemic?

With the demise of familiar names on the high street and the Covid-19 pandemic ramping up the demand for internet shopping, the high street looks like it’s heading for a major decline.

But to paraphrase Mark Twain, have reports of the death of the high street been greatly exaggerated?

Admittedly, at the moment things aren’t looking too great for our towns and cities but in reality, the Covid-19 crisis has merely fast-forwarded a situation that already existed.

There’s been a slow-burning revolution on the high street, and when we emerge post pandemic it will urgently require some out-of-the box thinking by retailers and investors.

Part of the problem has been that many of the established retail companies had taken their eye off the ball.

They felt they knew their core customer, but in fact didn’t at all.

With regard to fashion, there was an assumption that people shopped in very specific demographic groups, but that has all changed.

A 70-year-old grandma is equally as excited by the new drop at Zara as her 18-year-old grandchild.

That is why brands such as Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Peacocks and Jaeger have been part of the huge retail cull that has happened over the past few years.

Fundamentally, their customer base is dying – literally – and not being replaced.

Another factor is rocketing business rates that have led to many big stores upping sticks and opting for out-of-town retail parks, where parking is easy and free and deliveries and customer pick-ups are easier but where, let’s face it, shopping is a deadly dull experience.

So there’s little wonder that shopping on the internet has currently soared in popularity – although online brands such as ASOS, Boohoo and Missguided had already carved out a slice of the action for themselves serving up cheap fast-fashion to the tweens and 20s market.

It’s clear that lockdown hasn’t helped revive the fortunes of the likes of Debenhams and Dorothy Perkins, and even when the high street opened up last summer shoppers were unable to try on clothes.

So why would they bother masking up and queueing outside when they could get goods delivered right to the doorstep?

Older shoppers, who may have once been worried about online security, are now discovering the convenience of online retail – after all, they are also the most at serious risk if they go out shopping.

They are now finding a whole raft of advantages of shopping from the comfort of the kitchen table.

For example, how much  more comfortable is it trying things on at home with shoes and accessories to hand, and no bored shop assistant hovering outside the changing room curtains? And it’s not only clothing.

The beauty of buying white goods, or cosmetics, off the internet is that you can easily shop around for the best price.

Clearly it’s all looking peachy online and forecasters predicted that UK consumers would spend £141.33 billion shopping on the internet during 2020, up a massive 34.7 per cent from 2019.

This significant increase will see e-commerce account for more than 30 per cent of total retail sales in the UK for the first time.

In 2019, that share was 21.8 per cent.

A decade earlier, it was seven per cent.

Compare that to the high street, where ONS/ Springboard data for last November showed that footfall was at 45 per cent compared to the same period 12 months earlier.

Before the pandemic, footfall had dropped more than 10 per cent in the past seven years.

But there has been a sea change.

After long periods of lockdown, so many people are craving the normality of cruising the high street on a shopping spree.

After all, shopping is part of our DNA.

Historically the marketplace wasn’t just a place to exchange goods for money; it was a social space, and for that purpose the internet is far from able to deliver.

Another reason the retail situation looks so bleak at the moment is the stark contrast to what it was before Covid-19.

The more successful a town or city was, the harder it has fallen during the pandemic.

The once-buzzing metropolis is currently looking like a ghost town as those visitors and workers who previously flocked there to shop, and be entertained, are no longer doing that.

The fear is that if they don’t come back then these cities and towns will have a huge job on their hands.

The challenge therefore is to bring people back, and for that they will need short-term support from investors or the government.

In the long term, bigger cities have a lot going for them such as high-paid jobs and large resident populations – the things that contributed to their vibrancy in the first place.

Eventually, when workers go back into their city centre offices and start spending their money, and when tourism returns, there is little doubt that Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester or York’s visitors will recreate a market for local businesses and help their high street thrive again.

Certain things will have to change as the type of shopping on the high street that was comfortingly familiar to an older generation will become meaningless in the future.

Few younger shoppers will miss Debenhams, or House of Fraser, but to get them to shop on the high street will take some re-invention.

Shopping guru Mary Portas recently set out her vision of the high street of the future in an article written for the Guardian.

In it, she stated that a whole new generation of shopper will not support businesses who don’t prioritise people or the planet.

“We’re moving away from that: there is a new value system at play,” she said.

Portas believes the future lies in the ‘kindness economy’ where growth will occur for those businesses which contribute in some way to make life better.

Her plan would be for a high street filled with experiences for the consumer, everything from escape rooms and nail salons, to restaurants and street performers.

She adds: “Research routinely shows that sustainability, innovation and standing for something aren’t just buzzwords for marketers, but the keys to building brand loyalty among younger customers who demand that the companies they buy from show social responsibility.

“This trickles down to what sticks on high streets, where the most successful will offer a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and wellbeing.”

It will be some time before a clear picture emerges of the impact of lockdown and social distancing on the public’s willingness to shop in high streets.

Much will depend on how businesses respond once current Government support ends, such as the furlough scheme, the lease forfeiture moratorium and business rates relief for the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors.

However, many retail and restaurant chains have already said that a significant percentage of their stores will close, and the impact on job losses is also expected to continue.

What the high street needs to do is go beyond the purely transactional and provide brilliant service that can’t be replicated online, expert knowledge, or a space where people might like to get together such as community hubs.

For the high street not to die, there needs to be investment in new business and up-and-coming designers.

While the older, more traditional shops are disappearing, they are being replaced by pop-ups and local boutique businesses.
These are expected to thrive in high streets with strong local communities.

The most successful will offer a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and wellbeing.

Rather than viewing the pandemic as something that has destroyed the high street, investors could be looking at these changes as a huge opportunity.

By supporting fledgling businesses, and lending their expertise to help them succeed, the high street will flourish once again in an exciting and sustainable way.