Can we save the high street?

There’s little doubt that the Great British Highstreet, so long a feature of British society throughout the whole country, is in crisis. The large “bedrock” chains are in retreat undergoing bouts of rationalisation and bankruptcy, the high street banks are becoming rarities and there are an estimated 58,000 vacant retail units in the UK (June 2022).

Walk through virtually any town centre now and the signs are there, vacant, boarded-up retail units interspersed with opportunistic “low-value” businesses (businesses you know won’t last the test of time – betting shops, pop-up stores, coffee shops, and fast-food outlets) taking advantage of low rents and incentivised rates reductions.

But what has caused this retail despair and are there any solutions that could reverse this trend?

The causes of despair

There’s been a great deal of discussion over what has caused the collapse of the Great British High Street in what was once a nation of “shopkeepers”, but key themes include:

  • The rise of the internet
    the growing maturity and sophistication of online retailers have brought a level of choice and price competitiveness to the market that has quite simply revolutionised retail
  • Rising overheads
    interest rates, business rates, energy & staff costs have all risen, fundamentally altering the cost-benefit balance of bricks and mortar retail – making it harder for businesses to cover their costs, let alone make a profit
  • Cost of living
    inflation, the energy crisis, and the gradual reduction in real-term increases in wages over the years have led to a reduction in disposable income by consumers, leading to significant changes in behaviour (becoming more price conscious)

The above are societal, macro-economic, and nationwide reasons for the decline of the High Street.

However, there are a range of other, less obvious, more local, and controllable factors that have an influence on the decline of local high streets, for example:

  • The environment – fundamentally, how clean and attractive it is
  • Accessibility – in terms of public transport and car (i.e. parking)
  • Security – do people feel safe and secure
  • Clustering – in terms of the mix of retail outlets and their proximity to each other (i.e. shops of interest to consumers)
  • Mixed or single use – is the high street just retail, or is it mixed use including restaurants pubs and other attractions

The above factors, at least to a certain extent, are controllable by local authorities in that they have the capability to influence them through policy and planning.

An alternative view on Armageddon

Let’s be controversial here. There’s a different view of the continuing demise of the high street.

In a word – complacency.

Not by any one actor, but by everyone. The government, local authorities, estate managers, and retailers themselves.

The world has changed - new technology, new leisure, and spending habits, different attitudes, vastly increased range of products and services, different working patterns, changes in work/life balance, and the like – but has the average high street changed to accommodate these fundamental shifts?

Many high streets have preserved themselves in aspic catering to a market that no longer exists. Collectively, they have failed to anticipate and adapt to the significant changes taking place within society.

Not for the first time…

Yet this is not the first time that the high street has been imperilled. Back in the 80s & 90’s, we saw a similar disaster unfold with the rise of the out-of-town shopping centres / retail parks.

These retail parks addressed many of the limitations that traditional high streets and town centres had and delivered solutions. Access was easy, there was plenty of parking – free parking - and there was a cluster of complementary retail outlets offering a sufficient breadth and variety of products to satisfy the majority of consumers, and economies of scale allowed for more competitive pricing.

Did the high street learn? 

Can the High Street be rescued?

So, if we think high streets and the traditional town centres of this country are worth preserving – what are the solutions?

Firstly, no one actor can deliver “a” solution. Just one retailer on their own won’t make the difference, likewise, one local authority with a plan won’t either unless supported by a group of retailers and other interested parties.

Secondly, there needs to be a fundamental understanding of the needs and wants of consumers and any proposed solution must satisfy these. It’s not a case of build it and they will come – because they won’t.

Consumers – what about them?

Retail is still a thing – it hasn’t gone anywhere.  But the high street needs to recognise it has to be competitive with out-of-town retail parks and the internet. Competition doesn’t have to focus on price – the high street would lose – but on other features such as service, convenience, experience, and the catchall “added value”.

The other great need is leisure. Consumers want to maximise their leisure time, and if this can be associated with retail – double win (in fact a significant percentage of consumers consider retail therapy to be leisure).

So are there solutions to saving the high street – well it depends on the high street as it’s unlikely that all can be saved. There are some bad high streets out there, and shy of knocking them down and starting again there’s not much which can be done to save them (note, this seemed to be a popular thing to do in the 60’s – replacing historic town centres with brutalist pre-textured concrete monolithic blocks – didn’t work too well in the long run).

So, what can be done for the Great British High Street?

Approaching this from a marketing perspective, we would suggest the following:

  • Environment:
    Clean and safe focused on the job at hand – so if that focus is retail or leisure perhaps not a busy road running through the middle. The environment needs to be conducive to the behaviour you're trying to encourage – you're trying to encourage people to spend time in a location – make it worth it
  • Clustering
    Don’t spread it too thin. If consumers cannot walk easily between places of interest – quite simply – they won’t. Make it easy for consumers to browse, to wander
  • Breadth
    Give consumers a variety of things to do – some retail-focused, some more leisure-focused. Spread activity times so that the high street doesn’t turn into a ghost town in the evenings – give consumers a range of reasons to visit – retail/food/social/experience
  • Accessibility
    Make it as easy as possible. Transport links and parking – most consumers nowadays (depends on where you are though) like using their car – they dislike walking a long way from their car unless it’s something very special – why punish consumers with exorbitant parking charges?
  • Barriers
    Remove them – it’s amazing how many little barriers there are to the high street/town centres. From cryptic one-way systems, lack of parking/charging for parking (it’s like a tax), busy roads, etc.

And finally…

The fundamental secret of success is to give the consumer a reason to use the high street – to make it an attractive place they want to spend time – either for social reasons, leisure activities, or for retail – ideally for all of those.

And yes, this requires investment from all parties, the government, local authorities, and retailers. It needs to be planned – if you allow betting shops and fried chicken joints onto the high street – don’t be surprised by what it turns into.

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