Retail and the future of the high street

How do you imagine the high street looking like in the future? Bustling and full of excitement? Kids running around with ice cream and the elderly doing salsa classes in the square? Who knows what will happen, but it’s our collective responsibility to figure that out and drive change.

The current marketplace is going through a tough time, however it’s independent retailers such as yourselves that are pushing the great British high street forward. By leading the way with speciality, you are giving the trust back to customers. With the ever-evolving customer and their ever-evolving needs, only businesses with transparent models are thriving in this complicated world. 

If we like how you look, if we understand ‘clearly’ what you do, if you’re nice and you smile and can do ‘your one thing’ very very well. Then you win. We will be attracted to you. We will spend with you. And most likely we’ll return to you again and again. – Eve Reid, Metamorphosis Group

What needs to change?

Big businesses like Tesco, Waitrose and even Royal Mail have spent years centralising everything. Now, with convenience becoming more important, those big businesses have realised they need to de-centralise it all and serve their local communities. Connectivity to the local community is now crucial for a bustling high street and an engaged consumer base.

Reimagine the spaces, and think beyond retail. There’s so much more to the high street we should be combining. Retail space itself needs to adapt; to use theatre and experience to engage our communities.

Long gone are the days of competing with your retail neighbours. Neighbours should be your friends or at least allies. Knowledge should be shared. By working together, you encourage additional footfall and repeat custom.

Instead of worrying about the competition between online and offline retail and its impact, retailers should be looking to create a seamless experience across both channels. More and more online retailers are experimenting with bricks & mortar pop-ups. Small businesses are using simple website creation tools to create online stores to sell their products online. Both marketplaces have become a lot more user-friendly so they can be utilised at little effort and lower cost. 

What are the current challenges to high street retailers

According to Helen Dickinson (The British Consortium), ‘retail is in the midst of the perfect storm’. Rising costs for retailers increased levels of technology and changing consumer demands are aggravating this.

Back in 2013, Nick Johnson was the lead at Urban Splash running a huge project to regenerate Altrincham town centre. With plenty of resistance, the project still went ahead, focusing on transformational change lead by people. Nick’s dream was to create a high street that utilised its people and the talent it offered. 

We want to create a ‘total’ experience – shopping, eating, drinking, and entertainment with each component part delivered by hand-picked independent businesses from across the north west of England. – Mr Johnson 

Since the change, Altrincham has become a high street that inspires many others. It’s winning awards and even driving the growth of housing sales with more people wanting to move there. He made a transformational change – curating experiences and utilising people, not capital. His aim was to demonstrate the need of people and intelligence to drive change of such volume. 

The perfect example of that thinking is the Crickhowell high street in Wales. The winner of the 2018 High Street Awards, the Crockwell high street is bustling with family-run independent shops and even a 267 resident owned pub!

‘We are absolutely thrilled. Many of the stores are family run, not just one generation but handed down from previous generations as well.’ He added: ‘It has not really sunk in yet. The key thing is the character of the people in the town and the shopkeepers.’ – Resident Dean Christy

On a different perspective, James Lownan from the Association of Convenience stores highlights the challenges affecting convenience stores.

Convenience stores have long been at the core of communities, housing estates and neighbourhoods, serving residents day in day out. With consumer spend reducing, the question is what is missing? 

Although change is happening, for so long convenience stores have had a limited product offering – the basics. Cigarettes, crisps, milk and newspapers. The fresh food or a healthy grab & go offerings have been limited. But all this is changing. With businesses such as Eat17 leading the way, smaller chains such as Nisa and Spar are catching up. 

 Convenience stores will probably never be a ‘destination experience’, but as neighbourhood shops go, they are increasingly beginning to look like one.

In other matters, the government isn’t helping:

  • The UK government and local councils have legislation that blocks a reduction in business rates.
  • High street property owners themselves are often making it difficult for new small retailers to enter the market.
  • Local authorities and the government have a lack of intelligence around buildings and the high street and have decided to ignore it for years due to the lack of accountability within. It’s far easier for councils to say ‘no’ because they don’t want to be held accountable for what happens if they say yes. Local authorities need to rethink, challenge the government, and lead with authority if they want change to happen. 
  • Costs and overheads in retail aren’t helping, including the worry of BREXIT and potential change to import tariffs. 

The big question: Are retailers too scared for change?

It seems that everyone is scared at the moment and that might not be a bad thing. Fear pushes invention. Feeling safe creates complacency and reinvention comes to a stop. 

Let’s embrace the power of independent shops. In order to affect change and start honest and intelligent debates, small independent retailers need encouragement. An independent high street brings culture and creativity to any given area and that encourages footfall. Also, identity. In the last 20 years, the high street has seen an erosion of identity, everything is starting to look the same. The high street needs to start getting back onto identity and that is a real strength to reinvention.

Finally, businesses need to commit more to technology for consumer benefit. Simple things such as registering their business with Google so they become searchable to residents who are looking for something specific. Utilising models such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo can bring a new audience group as well as revenue to small food retailers. 

The value that technology can offer businesses is huge.

What opportunities are there?

  • More flexibility in leases would allow space for pop up shops to create more dynamic spaces. By making things more flexible, we attract independent retailers. This needs to happen from the top down – i.e. the government. 
  • Kickstart change – growth in leisure & experience.
  • Experience & interaction led services will start to join the high street.
  • Will free car parking become a thing? Will it encourage more footfall to the high street? Councils are charging for parking and so often it’s limited to small areas or supermarket car parks. It’s likely that it’s limiting the footfall to the high street. This is another challenge to the local authorities who need to revise their budgets if they want their high streets to grow. 

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