It is no secret that the high street has been struggling for some time. The pandemic's legacy is one in which we will no longer be able to visit Debenhams or Thornton’s and in which well-loved brands such as John Lewis have decided they no longer need or can afford as many stores.
The pandemic has not created the problems of the high street, it has accelerated them
To survive and thrive, put simply, city centres require footfall. Department stores such as Debenhams and John Lewis often act as magnets drawing shoppers in, but their experience when they are there is also shaped by the other shops, restaurants and coffee shops found around them. The question is, is the high street attractive enough without the big department stores?
There has been much talk and hope of things getting back to normal, but unfortunately, in retail terms it is not realistic.
Retailing post-pandemic will never be the same again. The ‘new normal’ will be shaped by consumers shopping experiences over the past twelve months. Before the pandemic, companies were able to operate without significant online businesses, with questionable returns policies, tired stores and mediocre customer service. Now we all expect more.
Online providers have stepped into the vacuum created by the lockdowns. Now even our grannies have bought their groceries online and had them delivered to them at home. For many, visiting the high street on a rainy day in November is likely to have lost its appeal.
So, is it all doom and gloom for our town centres?
No, it definitely is not, but they will need to evolve. Visitors will need new reasons to visit if you can buy more easily online; physical shopping needs to be made more rewarding. In short, it needs to be made more sociable and entertaining.
Brick and mortar shops need to leverage their sources of competitive advantage. Online brands have worked hard to address the intangibility of buying products online (e.g. through lifelike photos of the products and customer reviews). Still, if it is executed well, it is difficult to replicate the joy in receiving good service.
Ultimately, our shops need to be better at finding out what customers want and giving it to them.
Online brands can deliver convenience, lower prices and speedy delivery, but they cannot compete with human interaction. Good service is more than a computer algorithm. Businesses with staff who listen to the customer and are empowered to give them what they want will still succeed.
A role to be played by landlords and councils
The town centres of tomorrow are likely to be characterised by smaller outlets. Rents and floor space need to be set at levels that will also attract independent stores with unique offerings. It is also likely that future city centres will incorporate more housing, which will also provide a captive market for coffee shops and restaurants.
So, whilst it is not yet clear to what extent office usage and high street footfall will return to normal in the weeks ahead, the retail future is still potentially bright, but it will undoubtedly be very different.