The pandemic may have sped up the looming death of physical retailers, however it was not the start of it. As early as 2011, then-Prime Minister David Cameron set up an independent review into the future of British high streets and, in 2020 alone, over 17,500 outlets closed — with major chains like Debenhams and Topshop going into liquidation. It’s now high time to assess what the future of the British high street will look like.
COVID has taught us that we can do pretty much anything from home, and that includes shopping. A recent report from Deloitte found that during the first lockdown, online sales made up over a third of all retailing and almost half of all fashion retailing. This extreme pressure on brick-and-mortar shops is nothing new, though. An ONS report found that employment in the retail sector was in decline across the UK (bar the north-west of England) in the three years leading up to 2018. Even at the end of the coronavirus saga, there is a strong likelihood that more and more retailers will divert their focus onto e-commerce rather than physical shops, which will instead be treated as showrooms and flagships.
This change will have direct consequences for couriers in a process that we’ve seen surfacing in the last few years. We are going to see far more focus placed on ease and speed of service, requiring better logistics from retailers, warehouses, distribution centres, and delivery providers. For example, some brands are now offering same-day delivery, which consumers are starting to expect more and more. “In a world dominated by online giants, the consumer demand for flexibility and choice in delivery options from high street stores and independent retailers is constantly growing,” explains CitySprint, a courier company offering such services. “The digital era has redefined the way consumers shop for products, not only increasing demand for delivery convenience, but also competition.” For retailers to gain headway over their competitors, they would be wise to invest in a strong supply chain and reimagine their warehouse management and distribution centres.
As to the remaining physical shops, the way rent is paid looks likely to evolve. In the last decade or so, landlords have increased costs at every rent review despite retailers seeing less foot traffic to their sites. As a response to this, turnover-based rent — where the rent is calculated based on the income generated — may become more prominent. We may also see an increase in pop-ups and temporary physical locations to complement online active
As well as seeking convenience, consumers are now more invested in buying according to their values. The lockdowns have created a new sense of solidarity and community, as well as amplified beliefs about the importance of saving the environment, shopping ethically, and being more mindful of purchases. High street retailers will have to accommodate this, inducing more reliance on second-hand stores (or general ‘recommerce’), locally sourced goods, and sustainable products.
“We’re looking at a whole new generation who aren’t going to prop up the likes of Philip Green anymore,” retail expert Mary Portas explained in an interview with The Guardian. “They’re not supporting businesses who don’t prioritise people or the planet. We’re moving away from that: there is a new value system at play.” Seeing as 77% of people globally appreciate value-decency just as much as price and convenience, it is safe to say that the high street needs to be filled with ethical products to survive.
A significant impact of lockdown is that consumers are moving towards their local high streets over the city centre for boutique stores, family-owned shops, and community centres. This is not surprising in light of additional findings from the previously mentioned Deloitte report. The number of chain stores in the UK decreased by almost 6% since the start of 2017, while independent stores increased by 1.28%. Furthermore, 57% of consumers said that they would be more likely to spend money at a business that offers locally produced goods, even after lockdown ends.
Meanwhile, a Retail Week survey also found that 81% of respondents would care if their local high street disappeared, and 59% felt compelled to support it. This shift towards local neighbourhoods and communities is going to play a major role in how businesses market themselves, as well as which shops survive on the high street.
Self-care over materialism
When imagining a shopping spree on the high street, we picture a Sex-in-the-City-esque image of small hands carrying an arsenal of absurdly large branded bags filled to the brim. However, in the past decade or so, there has been a switch. People are less likely to go to the high street for products like clothes and shoes, and more for items regarding wellbeing, self-care, and experience. The Deloitte report found that none of the ten retail categories that produced the greatest net growth since 2013 involve physical products. Rather, we see health, hair, beauty, and socialising dominating the field.
This is perhaps epitomised by the fact that the former Debenhams store in Wandsworth is being renovated to become an entertainment centre, featuring an e-karting area, bowling lanes, and even a cocktail bar. This is the trajectory of the high street — handing out experiences in exchange for time, realising that people turn to the web for products. Expect to see more nail salons, escape rooms, bars, and hospitality venues, and less of the classic four-walls-stock-and-a-till.
Brick-and-mortar stores will not endure if they only act as a shop window to inventory sold online. They will have to provide something beyond the transaction, which is more simple to complete on the web: consumers can do it from wherever they want, search specifically for the products they need, and even receive their items on the same day. A physical shop will have to offer some added value, as well as represent the brand to inspire consumer loyalty. This could be personal shopping, sharing expert knowledge, or launching a community space for people to get together as well as to shop. Glossier shops are living examples of this — designed to be an Instagrammable haven, the locations sell store-exclusive products and plenty of selfie opportunities to lure consumers into their physical outlet.
It is clear that the high street is experiencing a major crisis. However, this does not necessarily spell the end of it, but rather urge shop owners to rethink its purpose. Instead of acting as a host to massive fast-fashion chain stores, the future of the high street includes smaller, ethical and local boutiques, as well as centres that are built to complement an online presence.