Declining high street retail: opportunity or threat?

The decline of high street retail should be seen not as a threat, but as an opportunity for town and city centres to reinvent themselves as neighbourhoods and community hubs, according to property group JLL.

The group recently hosted its annual South West Property Market Review, in Bristol. It echoed the sentiments of retail expert Bill Grimsey, saying that there is too much retail space in the UK and that town centres are set to be go through a period of transformation. This could see some retail space used for other purposes, making areas far more viable for a different mix of retail, leisure and residential occupation.

Cargo in Bristol
Cargo in Bristol

"The location of old department stores and large shops are often ideal for other uses such as much-need homes, offices, hotels, restaurants, cafes or bars", says Simon Peacock, lead director at JLL in the South West. "Our city and town centres need to become places for people to live, work, shop, eat and relax, adding diversity and bringing people in. A mixed-use approach is the direction of travel, signifying the end of an era where urban areas were zoned according to use, and we're already seeing this with the success of Finzels Reach and Wapping Wharf in Bristol." 

Bristol’s Temple Quarter is set to see new housing and workspace alongside a new campus for the University of Bristol, Bristol Temple Meads train station is being redeveloped and there are additional transport investments in the shape of the MetroBus service. This may all help Bristol to attract technology firms to the area – a key driver of employment and growth.

The property group says that a combination of housing, leisure space and offices will create more vibrant town centres, replacing empty or underused shops.

"There are two things that are essential for the future success of Bristol city centre, or indeed any town or city centre; they are strong civic leadership and a vision for the future", adds Peacock. "The changes to our retail sector should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat. In Bristol, we need more housing, we need investment in infrastructure and more places for people to work. It's a no brainer to capitalise on the opportunities changes to our retail landscape and transport hubs bring to ensure our city's future prosperity."

A UK high street
A UK high street

JLL’s view is echoed by a report from commercial finance group ABC Finance, which has analysed store closures which took place in 2018 and exploring options for the future shape of UK high streets.

The company took a range of suggestions from industry experts – such as a wider food and drink offer, experience-focused stores, green spaces, beacon technologies and flexible work spaces – and asked consumers what they wanted. Nearly a third of respondents said that a combination of all of these factors is what is required to rekindle their relationship with their local high street.

More than half of respondents said they prefer to spend their money with independent local retailers rather than large chains, while three quarters said they are saddened by the decline of UK high streets (the remaining quarter declared themselves indifferent). A fifth of respondents say that visits to their local high street may be months apart, because they don’t value what is on offer; 38 per cent do some or all of their shopping online.