Rethinking the high street in the post-pandemic world

Peijie Wang is Professor of Finance at the University of Plymouth Business School. He was previously Professor of Finance at the University of Hull and also Professeur Principal at IÉSEG. He has held faculty and visiting positions at a number of institutions including: Manchester Business School, UMIST, University of Manchester and Bayes Business School, City, University of London. His teaching and research interests include real estate, financial markets, international finance and monetary macroeconomics.

To find out more about Professor Wang’s work on the Competition, Innovation and Positioning (CIP) consultancy, please contact him via email.

 

Squaring the circle

Many organisations today have to navigate the divide between two different arenas, the local and the global. Together with academic colleagues across the Business School, we provide consultancy to external organisations to help with competition, innovation and positioning (CIP) to explore how firms and organisations position themselves in both local and global markets. We advise organisations on change and growth; whilst investors, consumers and entrepreneurs can spot opportunities in markets, it is through innovation and dynamic positioning that they can gain a competitive edge and enhance performance.

CIP’s key value proposition is interdisciplinarity analysis. We can bring academics, researchers, wider groups and communities together to exchange ideas, evidence and expertise. We can integrate research on economic behaviour, strategy and regulation with research on the circular economy in regional development or on smart living and financial innovations. Academics and researchers can use their skills, honed over years in research, to generate and interpret data. Studying this data gives insights into what drives success or causes failure. It also informs decision making and feeds into evidence-based policymaking.

Two heads are better than one

Bringing multiple disciplines together in CIP stimulates the generation of ideas. Discussions can explore new territory. This helps us identify potential solutions, drawing on disciplines that may not have been brought together to solve a problem collectively before. Using their convening power, universities can bring different stakeholders into the room; involving different disciplines in a decision-making process enables us to analyse issues from multiple angles. It ensures the process is robust and the conclusions appropriate. Identifying new approaches and solutions in this way can have a long-lasting impact on society and the economy.

Our work is aimed at organisational leaders, policy makers and researchers. We can deliver sector and company analysis as well as economic base analysis for regions and local administrations and regional input-output analysis. We have worked for central and local government as well as specific sectors and businesses and are always keen to develop relationships with businesses in the South West.

Changing High Street

Real estate is one area of expertise in the Business School. Right now is a pivotal moment for real estate in UK high streets. The pandemic’s impact on high streets has been widely discussed. Research from PwC demonstrated that more than 10,000 chain store shops closed down in Great Britain in 2021. Some retailers, like Gap, have moved their operations completely online. Others are consolidating their property portfolios. Retail units have become monuments to once-thriving businesses. This spare retail space needs to be assessed and used creatively to meet the local community’s needs, now and in the future.

People returning to town and city centres post pandemic are seeking a social and leisure experience. Retail and functional needs are increasingly met online. The ‘new normal’ will mean creating resilient and revitalised high streets which serve multiple purposes. Funding and policy-making needs to support this, underpinned by robust economic data and an awareness of community needs and demands.

Eternal cities?

The City Council in Plymouth has developed a plan to support the economic potential of the city centre and waterfront and is re-focussing attention on this area to ensure it is resilient in the face of the retail and digital revolution, as well as the post-pandemic recovery.

We need to rethink how we get people back into the cities. The growth of a young, dynamic student community here has brought economic benefits. We cannot rely on this to continue unabated. Levels of home, remote and hybrid working are likely to remain permanently above pre-pandemic rates. Many businesses have turned to some form of hybrid working system. It offers employees the flexibility many of them desire. With fewer workers commuting five days per week, town and city centres will have to adapt to continued lower daytime footfall from workers.

Resilient high streets are also green; local authorities should consider transport, green spaces, and low-carbon supply chains in any environmental strategy. Having access to clean, green spaces near high streets has become more important during the pandemic and its associated lockdowns. Investment in urban green space can deliver a range of health and environmental benefits. Green spaces and cultural locations provide opportunities for residents and visitors to recharge and engage through experience. Locally, Plymouth City Council has opened a new pedestrian route from the train station to the city centre, complete with sea views. They are also investing in Mobility Hubs around the city, constructing 300 electric vehicle charge points, 400 e-bikes, and a car club.

Local colour

The pandemic has reinvigorated people’s interest in their local areas. More time spent in communities will likely prompt a long-term emphasis on localism. During the pandemic, consumers became more attuned to causes that either support or directly benefit their local communities. This is likely to continue. The effects of localism will look different across the country, but there will be increased demand for new community spaces, underpinned by retail and hospitality offerings, as people come together again.

Families will make home location decisions differently. We are expecting domestic tourism and staycationing to remain above pre-pandemic levels for some time. The visitor economy in Plymouth contributes significantly to the city’s wealth, supporting over 8,000 of its jobs (7 per cent of total). Visitor spend boosts local demand, effectively raising business export revenue and generating multiplier effects through supply-chains and local spending of tourism wages.

Wise investments

Councils will have a significant role to play in creating successful high streets. As with any investment, projects designed to strengthen and reinvigorate town and city centres need to be financially viable. Local authorities will be able to access government and other funding to invest in interventions which could have a significant impact on high streets. Poor financial planning risks undermining potential benefits.

Academics can provide meaningful insights here. Many are deeply rooted in their local communities, have connections and an understanding of the local economy and society. We can work with local government to analyse what sustainable and appropriate investments should be. At a macro level, academics and researchers are aware of current research trends as well as national and global debates; we can bring the strategic context and macroeconomic view into a local context.