Reviving the UK high street in the post-Covid world

The UK high street has never been in a more challenging place following Covid-19, and it’s not overly dramatic to suggest it may be in mortal danger. The severe loss of trade suffered by town centre businesses during the lockdown period, alongside a continuous consumer shift to online shopping, make such a scenario very plausible.

Footfall has been worryingly low even since the reopening of non-essential stores , impacted by social distancing restrictions and the understandable reluctance of many consumers to re-enter public places. All in all, this is not making for a vibrant and enterprising environment at the moment. Darren Williams, MD at Williams Harding consulting, notes: “Retailers are struggling to understand what the rules are, communicate that to their teams and customers, and at the same time control costs and provide an experience.” The recent stream of announcements by major retailers regarding store closures and redundancies is only adding to this feeling of negativity.

An opportunity out of the crisis?

Yet as the old adage goes ‘out of crisis comes opportunity’. So should the industry instead be viewing the situation as a great chance to start a long-overdue transformation of the high street, ensuring it meets the needs of the modern day consumer?

This is certainly the view of Preston Benson, founder of the Really Local Group. “This particular crisis has accelerated opportunities that we felt have been growing over the last 5-10 years with respect to high street retail,” he notes.

The Really Local Group’s aim is to regenerate high streets by enabling a varied range of enterprises to coexist with retail stores. This can attract a broader range of people, with enough options to spend an entire day at a town centre, leading to knock-on benefits for all high-street businesses, including retail. An example is the transformation of a former Poundland store on Catford High Street into what is known as Catford Mews; a place which contains a cinema, live music venue, and food hall. 

The high street must also become more digitally savvy for this mixed-usage approach to work effectively according to Benson; this includes having a strong social media presence to advertise exciting new events as well as a strong Wi-Fi network.

It is this kind of thinking that is needed now in UK high streets across the country in the wake of Covid-19. And with the sad, but impending closure of a number of retail stores, there is likely to be more premises available that can be put to new uses.

Kyle Monk, head of retail insights and analytics at the British Retail Consortium (BRC) comments: “I think there is an opportunity for a mixed-usage approach on the high street, where there is less retail but higher footfall with more energy and life because there’s lots of non-retail commercial enterprises; this means we can start building communities whereas before you just had pure retail.”

Likewise, Williams believes we could get much more fluidity and flexibility in town centres in the coming years. He says: “I can see the high street becoming much more reliant on pop-ups, temporary art galleries, temporary drop-in centres, temporary activations in empty shop windows that the landlords support; lots of interesting different ideas for the physical space that probably haven’t been thought of before.”

Collaboration to drive strategic change

Achieving this kind of outcome requires collaboration on a scale that has rarely been observed on Britain’s high streets, with retailers, landlords, local authorities, and of course, the local community working in conjunction to ensure the right approach is taken. 

Paul Martin, UK head of retail at KPMG comments: “Even prior to Covid-19, collaboration among retailers and other businesses was something firmly on the industry’s radar. In many cases, it has become an important means of evolving in the rapidly changing consumer landscape, whether it be joining the large retail platforms gaining greater market share or sharing excess space in stores.

“The recent pandemic has only accelerated that process, and as such we’ll likely see more collaboration between retailers and other industries, as they look to adapt to survive.”

In the Catford example, such a revamp could take place because the local authority acquired much of Catford town centre on behalf of its residents, enabling a longer-term view to be taken on how the area could be made more relevant for the local community.

Benson says: “What you’ll see is a competitive advantage in the areas where there is common ownership or there is a common thing that brings people together. And in those neighbourhoods and towns where the shops are all owned by different people or there’s not a willingness to collaborate, those town centres will fall even further behind than they are today.”

An opportunity for independent shops?

The growing availability of premises could also provide an opportunity for a new wave of local independent retailers to emerge. “Many of the gaps left by the national retailers will be filled by small new independent, innovator retailers,” states Martin Newman, retail and customer behaviour expert and founder of the Consumer First Group, speaking during last month’s Retail Transformation Live virtual event.

A growth of local stores has to potential to encourage consumers back to town centres, partly because these types of shops often provide a different experience to online or national chain retailers. Newman adds: “For those that do shop locally and go into independent retailers, it’s such a great experience – it’s like going into an Aladdin’s cave – you often don’t know what to expect or what you’re going to find when you go in there.”

Additionally, a re-found sense of community cohesion, including more support for local businesses, has also emerged during lockdown, and Williams, who until turning to consulting two years ago headed up retailers including Hotel Chocolat and Unilever,  is hopeful this sentiment will be sustained over the long-term. “You might start to see some of that trade becoming sustained because people enjoyed the convenience and arguably the quality and personal service of shopping local,” he comments.

Short-term survival

Unfortunately, these kind of changes will not happen overnight, and for the time being, high-street retailers are focusing on short-term survival. But what quick steps can shops take to help encourage customers to visit at the moment, particularly amid the ongoing pandemic?

In Williams’ view, retailers should be investing in digital signage; firstly to denote in-store footfall so it is clearer and easier for customers to plan shopping trips. “A visual customer counter that is displayed at the front saying how many people are in store, particularly in some of the smaller retailers, would be really helpful for customers to make in advance an informed decision,” he comments. This kind of technology has been implemented by a number of supermarkets in recent months.

Williams also believes there should much more digital signage within shops, both for Covid-19 safety announcements but also to provide upbeat messages that make customers feel more positive about entering. He adds: “I think a lot of the manual printed signage gets lost in translation and noise so the use of digital signage could be really important in store, and it can also add a bit of colour and warmth to what at the moment is a very sterile environment.”

In fact, any technologies that make shopping easier, such as scan & go, should be considered at this time. Monk notes: “Anything that improves customer’s confidence in returning to stores will definitely be welcome.”

A unique opportunity

The Covid-19 crisis has placed an unprecedented strain on the high street, and it is difficult to see it surviving in its current form. But amid the obvious gloom, the pandemic potentially offers a unique chance to give high streets a much-needed revamp, restoring their relevance. Developing mixed-usage town centres is in the interest of all parties, including retailers, and this requires lots of co-operation to plan this approach strategically, effectively utilising the rising number of vacant premises. In the shorter term, high street retailers should be investing in technologies that make shopping amongst Covid-19 restrictions a much more enticing prospect.