Ways to Save Our High Street

High streets across the UK have certainly taken a hammering over the past few years as more and more shopping is done on-line because most shoppers are time-deprived and find shopping online far quicker – and often cheaper if rising fuel costs and parking charges are taken into account.

How Did the High Street Perform in 2018?

2018 was a bad year for the retail sector. 40,000 people working in the retail sector either lost their jobs or their jobs were put in jeopardy. Well known names including Toys R Us, Maplin, Oddbins and Poundworld were amongst the 43 retailers to disappear from the high street as a total of 2,594 shops were closed – a number greater than the combined figure for 2016 and 2017. Iconic household names like Marks & Spencer, Mothercare and House of Fraser were forced to close a number of their stores too, in a bid to remain competitive. Christmas is always a crucial time for retailers but sadly, 2018 was the worst for a decade. Experts predict that 10,000 shops could close in 2018.

The hard fact is that UK shoppers love online shopping. 18% of the market is sold online and 25% of fashion sales are made online. Experts predict that online shopping will grow a further 15% by 2021 – making the growth of online shopping in the UK the fastest in Western Europe. As well as on-line shopping, the retail focus in many towns and cities has been moved away from the high street in recent years to the new, modern out of town retail parks that are easier to access and have plenty of parking – usually free of charge too!

Having said that, there are still many people who enjoy physically going shopping but for them the quality of the experience has been impacted by the new – and much lower- quality of customer service that believes that customers do not need help and guidance as they will have done their own research online – how wrong is this? Customers still want a quality service when they go shopping and interestingly, Waterstones and Majestic Wines who both believe in top quality customer care, are both doing well and expanding. Customers are also needing retail outlets to be open for longer hours rather than the traditional 09.00 - 5.00 pm to fit around increasingly busy schedules.

Many believe that whilst on-line shopping will continue to steadily increase, shoppers will also start to use artificial intelligence (AI) such as smart speakers to pre-empt their food shopping needs. Others believe that whilst the character of the average high street is changing, brand awareness means that a physical presence is still needed and in fact, is very important.

A number of retail experts believe that the most successful retailers are those who recognise the close link between their physical shop presence and their online shop. Many shoppers like to research a product and compare prices online before physically assessing their chosen item in-store. Many will then go on to purchase the item there and then using the store's click and collect service.

Although much can be bought online, not everything can be, so there is still going to be the need for certain shops such as hairdressers, barbers, coffee bars, convenience stores and late night compact supermarkets. Shops therefore will still be needed, but not as many shops as in the past.

What Do the High Street Leaders Think?

The former chief executive of Iceland, Bill Grimsey, has conducted two reviews on the state of the UK high street for the government and has these thoughts;-

“Plans for town centres have to change. The key is community, not retail, and it’s a broader issue than shops. Forget retail dependency and instead encourage local authorities to plan unique places to live, work, play and shop, prioritising health, education, eating out, leisure and housing. It’s useless to resist change, as by 2030 about 30% of all shopping will be online. The whole argument that town centres can be fixed with shops is flawed.”

The key to the future success of the high street is that it must remain vibrant and with a strong community spirit and not be allowed to fall into disrepair as more shops close – in essence, the soul of a high street can successfully live on, providing that the use of the high street is adapted to meet modern needs and its focus switches from being purely retail to being more of a social hub. Historically, the high street has long been the focus for the local community and whilst it has been primarily because of its shops, the high street can still remain the focus even though its shops will no longer be the main reason for people to visit.

Town planners feel that the introduction of educational, recreational and educational facilities where shops once were, will ensure that the high street continues to be an important hub for the community. Planners must assess the needs of the local community when planning for the future as much will depend on type of residents living in the town including their age, plus health, leisure and sporting requirements. Interestingly, a number of experts have suggested that empty shops should be converted into residential units to help ease the current housing shortage, but whilst this sounds a good idea, it might not necessarily be the right solution for many towns. In reality, the towns with the most pressure on housing are usually the ones with thriving retail outlets and other facilities on their high street. In some cases though, residential units for students, social housing and retirement housing good prove beneficial.

Rebecca McDonald who is an analyst at the Centre for Cities 'Think Tank', believes that the high streets that do best are those that sell their goods and services elsewhere, rather than relying purely on local clientele. This type of company is attracted to the high street in towns because there is usually a ready supply of good labour and the town has enough amenities to attract plenty of workers. In turn, these employees feed their money back into the local community so it is a win-win situation. She also suggests that high streets with more than 50% of space dedicated to retail will not do well in the future and when a shop closes, the private sector does not have the incentive to buy, as the property can only command modest rents so it is up to the local authorities to intervene and use the space imaginatively.

Certainly, clever planning is needed. As coffee shops gain in popularity for example, several of these in a high street will entice people of all ages and encourage them to make it their social meeting place. Carefully designed seating areas surrounded by colourful flower beds also encourage people to meet – especially older people. Increasing the culture in the heart of the town has also proved to be a good way to use old shops with positive results. After careful analysis of their residents' needs, some towns have already started to change the emphasis of their high street with great success – and with the help of £675 million that was given by the government in the budget last autumn for the 'Future High Streets Fund' many high streets are being successfully rejuvenated.

What Is the Government Doing to Help the Traditional High Street?

In August 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged another £1 billion to help a further 50 high streets in the UK. Towns across England – from Durham to Dover and Scarborough to Stockport – will join the 50 areas that have already been shortlisted to reinvent their high streets. The government funding could be used to improve transport systems and aid ease of access into town centres as well as convert unused retail units and invest in new and vital infrastructure.

Certainly, there is currently a renaissance quietly taking place across the UK in many of its high streets. In Norfolk for example, five towns are completely revamping their high streets – Kings Lynn, North Walsham, Great Yarmouth, Swaffham and Lowestoft. In the north, Stockton-on-Tees has a newly designed high street as does Darlington.

Whilst on the south coast, Worthing is currently undergoing an ambitious regeneration programme, both on its famous sea front, but just as importantly, in the town centre, with Montague Place at the end of the main shopping street being completely revamped with attractive benches to sit and relax and plenty of colourful floral decorations. Next, work will begin on the restoration of Portland Road and South Street.

The future of the high street in every English town is looking good – providing there is a balanced mix of residential, leisure, education, health and retail. To achieve this, town planners must move away from traditional thinking about the retail on the high street and embrace a more flexible approach to planning. Ten years ago. online shopping was almost unheard of and in ten years time – who knows? The challenge for town planners is to react to local demands and continuing changes in them. The high street in the UK can be enjoyed for many years to come as long as it is reflects the changing needs of the local population.

Here's to the future of the high street.