Can the High Street Recover?
There is no denying it; the British High Street is in decline and has been since 2008 (Deloitte). 16% of shops on the UK’s high streets stand empty, and 1 in 20 of these have been closed for more than 3 years. 2021 saw almost 9,000 chain stores disappear from the high street, and only 3,488 opened their doors in the same time frame.
With reports of an impending recession, is this going to prove too much for the remaining retailers still holding out on the high streets of the UK, or is the demand for internet & online shopping going to prove too much competition for bricks and mortar stores and shopping as we once knew it?
What Is Causing The Decline Of The High Street?
No one factor contributes to the closure of some well-known high street brands, more a perfect storm of complex issues that have continued to pressure retailers.
The shift towards internet & online shopping and the rise of giants such as Amazon offering next-day delivery and low prices has put traditional retailers on the back foot as they grappled with adjusting to the shift in consumer habits. Most recently observed by the closure of all Debenhams department stores and their acquisition by the Boohoo Group, which operates the Debenhams brand online alongside other ecommerce stores.
The rise in inflation (3%) since Brexit has also hit retail hard as the cost of imported products has risen, thus forcing up prices. Other factors include; rising overheads, increasing wages, changes in consumer habits and rising levels of debt, forcing both smaller and large retailers into insolvency.
Can The High Street Recover?
While people are returning to the high street after covid, there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned, and the chance to regenerate the British high street and what it looks like shouldn’t be squandered.
The future of the high street, as imagined by John Timpson from high street shoe retailer Timpsons, looks vastly different from the one we have now. There is a chance for smaller artisan brands and speciality stores to take the vacant spaces left by big box brands, which no longer see the need to occupy larger stores.
The government’s High Street Regeneration Plans also echo this to some extent. With £335 million set to be invested in 15 towns, the plans aim to restructure the current high street into vibrant places to live, work and eat. Whether or not this will be achieved remains to be seen, and ideas to use empty stores accommodation, local initiative, and creating more pedestrianised ideas should be thought through thoroughly to ensure the right businesses are attracted to the areas. Of course, this needs to and should be different in each region.
Another factor to consider is the proximity of white-collar workers. High streets that continue to thrive or have bounced back quickly have a considerable number of non-retail workers locally.
“The most successful places for retail have the most people working there as well – so having lots of people coming into work for councils, offices, and other employers is good for high streets. We need to encourage more people to work in our town centres.” Mark Robinson, chair of the High Streets Task Force.
While there remains hope that the high street can survive, it won’t survive in the way we know and have become used to. Retailers and local councils need to adapt to changes in consumer behaviour and allow retailers and businesses the opportunity to thrive in a location that caters to the modern shopper and an ever-changing way of life.