John Timpson knows a thing or two about the high street. The chairman of the UK shoe-repair chain that bears his family name was, after all, entrusted to lead a 2018 government review into what the future UK high street would look like.
Though at one time he envisaged a future where the number of shops in British town centres would have halved, he could never have imagined how quickly that revolution would come. The impact of the pandemic on our towns and cities has, he says, been seismic: “What we have seen is ten years of change on the high street all in one go, but it’s been all the negatives, without any positives,” he explains.
The negatives are obvious – store closures, job losses and empty streets. But Timpson believes there will be plenty of positives to come if local authorities show the imagination to turn their urban centres from shopping deserts into community hubs. “A large number of town centres, if they don’t do something about it, will have a real problem,” he says. “Town centres need to have a community hub, with shops alongside medical centres, entertainment venues, restaurants and cafes – all sorts of things that people will go to.”
Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at customer data business Springboard, also believes the acceleration of the high street’s decline – which has made the case for regeneration inarguable – should be taken as a positive, though she warns it will take some time for the changes to fully play out. “Things were changing on the high street anyway,” she says, “and the clearing out of the old guard will bring in a new guard, with shops filled by residential units, service businesses and entertainment occupiers.” Margaret Taylor
Local, ethical food shops
Retail expert Mark Pilkington, the former chief executive of lingerie company Gossard, says if there’s one thing the online revolution has taught retailers it’s that customers want to feel a close connection to brands whose ethos they feel aligned with. This means a return to a more post-war type high street, peppered with independent stores full of locally sourced produce. Wehrle agrees. “We’ll see things such as artisan food shops coming back to the high street,” she says. “People want to know the provenance of their food and are more socially conscious about supporting local businesses.”
Slimline big-brand stores
Switching focus to their online channels in the last year has shown traditional retailers they no longer need to have well-stocked, big-box stores. So, while the big-name retailers that have survived the pandemic are not going to disappear, they will, as John Lewis has already announced, start to occupy less space. Rather than filling that space with piles of stock to be checked out by overworked sales staff, they will focus on what Pilkington terms “hero products” that will be presented to customers by well-trained brand ambassadors tooled up with all the latest technology. And if you like what you see? You’ll go home and order it on the retailer’s website, of course.
The flipside of traditional retailers smartening up their online act is that web-based shops are starting to see the benefit in bricks and mortar. For landlords losing out when big-name, high-occupancy tenants such as Debenhams go bust, this creates an opportunity. Though most online brands may only want a physical store to showcase particular goods for limited periods, Pilkington believes the sheer number of businesses that could be in the market for such a deal will be good news for landlords. Those that seize the opportunity of subdividing existing units into smaller spaces kitted out with technology retailers can plug their branding into will reap the benefits of this nascent trend.