The Future of the High Street? Henry Johnston

This topic was spoken about long before COVID-19 reared its ugly head, but with lockdowns still in place across the globe, this question is more pertinent than ever - with the sight of store closures becoming increasingly more common across the UK.

The store closures are not just limited to independent book shops and the local butcher either, Marks & Spencer announced in August 2020 that it would reduce 7,000 jobs over the preceding 3 months. This follows on from past announcements from other major high street names including House of Fraser’s struggles in 2018/19 or even Woolworths (remember that?) which lost just over 800 stores in 2008/09. According to the Centre for Retail Research there have been 40 major retail failures from 2008 to the end of 2019 which has led to 14,087 store closures affecting 215,085 employees across the UK.

Technology has certainly played its part in changing the high street with people enjoying online shopping from the comfort of their sofas. The rise of firms such as Asos or Zalando have contributed to this and shopping online has become far more common and for many, is preferable to physically leaving the house to shop. The reasons for this are many: comfort, ease, cheaper (no travel costs/parking etc) and this has only further been exacerbated by the pandemic. However, that does not mean that technology has been a completely negative influence, with various shop floors offering a digital experience allowing customers to choose from millions of products and see their products come to life on the screen.

Stores such as Argos have utilised new technologies such as electronic price tags and ordering ‘kiosks’ where customers can simply walk up to a tablet, choose the item they want and then simply wait at the till to collect it or can even order the item to be delivered to their house. Not only does this save on retail store space but it has changed the way stores such as Argos operate and means they can save hugely on costs with these measures in place. The same goes for mobile phone apps that allow customers to self-checkout or even offering a ‘click and collect’ option when ordering online. These sorts of measures can help to combat the huge fall in retail sales of 15.1% that was experienced in April alone. By harnessing the efficiency gains that technology can offer brings a lot of hope to the high street. This was evident in the bounce back that ensued; retail sales increased by 10.6% in May and 13.5% in June. This is a clear result of not only customers moving to online shopping but also other technological measures that helped shops to continue to sell after the initial shock of the coronavirus.

Technology and the high street was certainly one issue, but that was nothing compared to the ‘slam-dunk’ effect that COVID-19 had, effectively causing the high street to die a slow and painful death. Shops were closed, many permanently, and even now people are hesitant to return to shops in person. Those that do must socially distance themselves meaning shops are now getting far fewer customers through the door and therefore experiencing lower revenues. With the threat of a second lockdown in the UK and with scientists no closer to creating a vaccine, this may be what life is like for the next few months, or even years.

As the national lockdown was lifted, both the news and social media were full of stories of people enjoying food and drink in newly pedestrianised streets and expanded pavements. This was a result of a few government schemes aimed at encouraging the general public to return to some normality and engage with the high street through coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Maybe we are seeing a move away from a retail focused high street? Whilst this may be the case, Boris Johnson has outlined a huge potential reform that may completely transform the high street as we know it. These reforms will allow commercial properties (including all the vacant shops due to Covid-19) to be turned into homes without planning permission.

The high street may well need to transform in order to keep its relevance as the epicentre of towns. It can repair the social fabric of communities who have been forcibly separated due to the pandemic. There should be a focus on localism and giving the community exactly what it desires be that shops, housing, cafes, gyms or all of the above. Thus, maybe the pandemic can present an opportunity to reshape the high street. It allows the government to revive interest in public space, especially high streets and town centres. Local government will need to implement these changes but of course, their finances are besieged by the pandemic and so central government will also have a role to play in helping and financing these issues. The private sector will also be important and cohesion between these three groups will be essential to a functioning high street. Viewing the high street as more than just a road of shops is the first step. It symbolises what each and every town is, not just economically but socially too.