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#RetailEXPO19 The future of the high street

By Kathy Oxtoby

The leader of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has dismissed fears about the death of the high street in the UK.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson told delegates at the RetailEXPO panel session ‘The future of the High Street – Shaping a strategy to tackle the challenges and create opportunities’, that it is a “myth” that the high street shopping experience was on its way out.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson OBE
BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson OBE

However, she said there was “no doubt that the high street was experiencing a ‘perfect storm’, combining the way people shop, rising costs for retail businesses, sluggish demand, and consumer poverty”.

Dickinson’s view of the shape of traditional high street retailers contrasted from “real excitement – innovation, technology, and new ways of supplying”, to “the other end of the spectrum – job losses and closures”.

To meet those challenges, Dickinson advised retailers to “revise spaces rather than save what they had in the past”.

She said the sector needs to “think beyond retail” and consider wider issues such as care in the community, an ageing population, community engagement, and flexible work spaces. But even taking these factors into account there would be no “silver bullet” to reinvent the high street shopping experience, she said.

Association of Conveniene Stores chief executive James Lowman
Association of Conveniene Stores chief executive James Lowman

Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman, said “concerns about high street issues are real”, and that pressures included: “cost, changing consumer, lifestyles, and the challenges of unlocking more consumer spend”.

He also highlighted issues around crime and safety, which can be a serious issue for those running stores that are open for long hours, and often with low staffing levels.

Market Operations founder Nick Johnson
Market Operations founder Nick Johnson

High streets across the country are already forging ahead with “daring regeneration projects”, said Nick Johnson, who curates young talent, and is responsible for Altrincham Market, and attempting to effect transformational change in similar places.

Having once had the highest retail vacancy rates in the country, Altrincham now ranks as one of its most popular shopping areas. Johnson attributed this transformation to using “people, not capital, as a principal resource”.

Johnson said other solutions to tackle challenges and create opportunities in retail included “rebuilding and revising buildings to revalue those assets that allow people to be economic and cultural contributors to places”.

Retail Design World editor Matthew Valentine chaired the discussion
Retail Design World editor Matthew Valentine chaired the discussion

Solutions for Dickinson included a “need for a bitter pill” to address high street difficulties, such as shorter leases for landlords, reduced business rates, and increasing flexibility for pop-up shops.

Lowman said change on the high street should focus on the growth in leisure and experience-based retail services, and interaction cafes in communities, which has “huge growth potential”.

As to whether businesses are scared to change and invest to re imagine the shape of retail, Johnson said that “everyone is scared in the retail sector but that’s not a bad thing”.

He said this fear would “necessitate reinvention” from retailers rather than their becoming complacent. But to realise change he said the sector would need to have an intelligent debate, look at the value of being independent, rather than “everywhere looking the same”, and encourage “culture, creativity and enterprise”.