The collapse of three major chains last week has jeopardized 30,000 retail jobs and sparked fears about the future of town centers. But the picture is not all bleak, according to experts including former government retail tsar Mary Portas, who says there is too much nostalgia and too little optimism about the future of Britain’s high street.
“The days of stacking up high and selling it fast are over,” said Portas, who has worked in retail for more than 40 years. “The brands that dominated it did it for years and failed to offer anything beyond mediocrity. Does anyone really miss BHS? Does anyone care about Dorothy Perkins? ”
On a humid Thursday afternoon at Oxford Circus, shoppers are very thin on the ground. At the Topshop entrance, the store’s DJ desperately asks for the decks to meet the brief of creating a “party atmosphere” for customers. Just a few doors down in Debenhams, shoppers take advantage of sales across all seven floors of the flagship store. The two went into administration last week.
“We’re looking at a whole new generation who are no longer going to propel people like Philip Green,” said Portas. “They don’t support businesses that don’t prioritize people or the planet. We’re moving away from that: there’s a new value system in place. ”
Were it not for the possible job losses, she would sing a good ruling for retail dinosaurs. Portas focuses on what she has called the “economy of kindness”, where she envisions growth for high streets with an overarching philosophy that includes some kind of contribution to improving life. But what will this translate into?
Many fewer shops selling probably real goods, and a much stronger focus on the experiential side – something that captures everything from escape rooms and nail salons, to restaurants and street performers.
In town, bricks and mortar stores are expected to survive if they can provide something beyond just the transactions – an excellent service that can’t be replicated online, expert knowledge, or a space that people like come together. Community hubs are often mentioned, while brands like Patagonia, Glossier and Nike are cited as role models for larger retailers.
Research routinely shows that sustainability, innovation and standing up are not just buzz for marketers, but the keys to building brand loyalty among younger customers require the companies they buy to be showing social responsibility. This cheats what sticks on the high streets, where the most successful will offer a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and wellness.
From Stoke Newington to Stoke-on-Trent, local pop-up and boutique businesses are expected to thrive on the high streets with strong local communities as well. That American Express and Google have both launched campaigns encouraging customers to shop locally and support small businesses underlining where experts predict the future will be headed.
“Covid-19 has encapsulated a social and economic movement that has been bubbling over the past decade,” said Portas. “We have seen mass intervention and a re-examination of how we live and want to live. Globally, 77% of people now say they value decency in business as much as price and convenience. Deeper, meaningful connections to where you live will become far more important than a day trip to an out-of-town shopping center or retail park. “
In Reading town center, retail specialist Mark Pilkington inspects Broad Street, a pedestrian thoroughfare anchored by John Lewis. “This is not bad as modern high streets go: there are not too many windows boarded and there is a strong mix of services – nail bars, phone repair shops and so on. It is a common offer in the middle of the market. “For retail to survive here, however, it anticipates that shops will become windows to an inventory held online.
“It’s pointless to use a store like glorious warehouses full of stuff when stock is seen and sold online. The shop floor will be shrinking and will be about engaging with customers in a way they can’t experience from their screens, ”said Pilkington. While much of this focus seems to be bent on serving the practices of millennials, generation Z and younger, Pilkington and Portas argue that the general high street restructuring will benefit everyone.
“Injecting more theater and excitement into traditional high streets increases their appeal to customers generally. If you don’t want town centers where grandmothers are smoking mums, you have to make them an attractive place to socialize. ”
This year, the government created a £ 95m fund to regenerate “historic high streets” across England. The scheme, run by Historic England, identified 68 high streets that would be revitalized by the cash injection, but focuses on those in conservation areas only. Attention is also needed to the modern high streets of every town that have been devastated by boardwalks, betting shops and discounted discount stores.
If Pilkington ran a more down-heel high street, he would “beautify it with some sculptures and flowers. Have stores that add services or experience – adaptations service, or electronics repair. They will be of real value to that community, and you can’t repeat that online. “
High streets are also expected to become more residential: under new rules that came into force in September, it is now possible to convert commercial properties – including vacant shops – into homes without planning permission. It is hoped that high street regeneration could be fueled by the rapid reintroduction of commercial properties.
The relationship between businesses and landlords is also expected to change, with rental systems becoming more flexible. In the short term, many retailers, including All Saints and New Look, are renegotiating their lease terms to push for “turnover rents” to reflect individual shop receipts. In the long term, Pilkington says, landlords must come to the party if they are serious about saving the high street.
“Leases are too long, too messy. Landlords need to be much more innovative and outspoken and offer where new business can take on and transform appearance through technology, ”said Pilkington. Instead of six months of setting up shop, this way a business would “plug and play”, so that space could be a popup menu for a well-known brand one day and a yoga studio the next.
In his book Retail Therapy: Why the Retail Industry Has Broken and What Can Be Done To Repair ItPilkington argued that the excessive level of business rates was a major cause of the long decline of the high street. For its post-Covid future, it considers an online tax essential to retail reform.
“If local authorities really wanted to save high streets, they would make parking free and easily available. And if the government were worried about saving retailers, they would impose an internet tax. Amazon pays almost no business rates. ”
Portas, appointed by David Cameron to lead a review into the future of Britain’s high streets in 2011, believes the Conservatives have failed to systematically understand how business has changed.
“They need to wake up. It’s shameful that they still haven’t re-adjusted their thinking on how Amazon and the distribution giants should be paying online equivalent tax rates. It’s shameful that they don’t do anything about it. Their slowness in understanding, their tardiness, is ridiculous.
“You’ve got these transportation giants choking up the roads, dramatically increasing CO2 emissions, increased packaging, and they contribute so little. Nobody has really looked at the implications of what we buy, when we buy, and the impact it has on the way we live. ”