The collapse of three big chains last week threatened 30,000 jobs in retail and sparked concerns about the future of city centers. But the picture is not bleak, according to experts, including former government-run retail tsar Mary Portas, who says there is too much nostalgia and too little optimism about the future of Britain’s high street.
“The times of stacking and quick selling are over,” says Portas, who has been working in retail for over 40 years. “The brands that dominated have done it for years and offered nothing but mediocrity. Does anyone really miss BHS? Does anyone care about Dorothy Perkins? “
Shoppers are particularly thin on a damp Thursday afternoon in Oxford Circus. Upon entering Topshop, the in-store DJ desperately manages the decks to meet the goal of creating a “party atmosphere” for customers. A few doors away in Debenhams, customers benefit from sales on all seven floors of the flagship store. They both went into administration last week.
“We are looking at a whole new generation that will no longer support Philip Green,” says Portas. “They don’t support companies that don’t prioritize people or the planet. We’re moving away from that: a new value system is at stake.
Were it not for the potential loss of her job, she would sing with joy to the retail dinosaurs. Portas focuses on what she has called the “economy of goodness”, in which she forecasts the growth of high streets following an overarching philosophy that assumes some contribution to the improvement of life. But what will it translate into?
Apparently, far fewer stores selling real goods, and a much stronger emphasis on the experiential side of things – everything that covers everything from puzzle rooms and nail salons to restaurants and street artists.
In a city, traditional stores are expected to survive if they can provide something beyond purely transactional – excellent service that cannot be replicated online, expertise, or a space where people like to meet. Social hubs are often mentioned, with brands like Patagonia, Glossier, and Nike being cited as role models for larger retailers.
Research routinely shows that sustainability, innovation, and position for something are not just buzz words for marketers, but key to building brand loyalty among younger customers who demand social responsibility from the companies they buy. It boils down to what sticks to the main streets, where the most successful will be a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and well-being.
From Stoke Newington to Stoke-on-Trent, pop-ups and local boutiques are expected to flourish in highways as well with strong local communities. The fact that both American Express and Google have launched campaigns to encourage customers to buy local and support small businesses underlines the direction experts predict the future.
“Covid-19 has crystallized the social and economic movement that has been boiling over the past decade,” says Portas. “We’ve seen massive introspection and re-examination of how we live and want to live. Today, 77% of people around the world say they value decency in business as much as price and convenience. Deeper, meaningful connections to where you live will become much more important than a day trip to a suburban mall or retail park. ”
In Reading Center, retail expert Mark Pilkington examines Broad Street, a pedestrianized artery anchored by John Lewis. “This isn’t bad for modern high streets: there aren’t many timbered windows, and there’s a hefty mix of services – nails, phone repair shops, and so on. This is a typical offer for medium-sized enterprises ”. However, in order for the trade here to survive, he predicts that stores will become windows to store online inventory.
“There is no point in using a store as a glorified warehouse full of stuff when inventory can be seen and sold online. The production hall will shrink and this will require customer engagement in ways that they cannot experience on their screens, ”says Pilkington. While most of this focus appears to be geared towards millennial habits, Generation Z and younger, Pilkington and Portas argue that the overall restructuring of the main street will benefit everyone.
“Injecting more theater and emotion into traditional high streets makes them more attractive to all customers. If you don’t want city centers where skinheads attack grandmothers to become attractive places to hang out. ”
This year, the government created a £ 95 million fund to revitalize “historic shopping streets” across England. The Historic England-led project has identified 68 major streets that will be revitalized by the cash injection, but only focuses on those in protected areas. Also noteworthy are the modern shopping streets, characteristic for each city, damaged by boarded up windows, bookmakers’ shops and neglected discount stores.
If Pilkington ran a smaller street, he would “embellish it with a few sculptures and flowers. Have stores that add services or experience – electronics conversion or repair services. They will be really valuable to this community and cannot be replicated online. “
High streets are also expected to become more residential: under a new law that came into force in September, it is now possible to convert commercial properties – including empty stores – into homes without a building permit. It is hoped that by allowing the rapid diversion of commercial real estate, the revival of high streets can begin.
Relations between businesses and owners are also expected to change, and rental systems are expected to become more flexible. In the short term, a number of retailers, including All Saints and New Look, are renegotiating their lease terms to pursue ‘turnover based rent’ to reflect individual store revenues. Pilkington says owners “must come to the party” in the long run if they are serious about saving the main street.
“The leases are too long, too tenacious. Owners need to be much more innovative and agile and offer space that new businesses can occupy and change appearance through technology, ”says Pilkington. Instead of equipping a store for six months, this is a plug and play company, so that one day the space is a pop-up for a famous brand, and the next – a yoga studio.
In his book Retail therapy: Why is the retail industry broken and what can be done to fix itPilkington argued that the excessive level of business rates was the main cause of the long collapse of high streets. For the sake of the post-Covid future, he believes internet tax is essential to reform retail.
“If local authorities really wanted to save high streets, they would make parking lots free and easily accessible. And if the government cared to rescue retailers, it would impose an internet tax. Amazon pays virtually no business fees. “
Portas, who was appointed by David Cameron to review the future of Britain’s high streets in 2011, believes that conservatives have systematically failed to understand how business has changed.
“They need to wake up. It’s a shame they still haven’t changed their minds about how Amazon and the shipping giants should pay the equivalent tax rates online. It’s a shame they don’t do anything about it. Their slowness to understand, their sluggishness is ridiculous.
“You have these delivery giants clogging roads, significantly increasing CO2 emissions2 emissions, increasing the amount of packaging, and they contribute so little. No one has really looked at the implications of what we buy when we buy and how it affects our lifestyle. ”