The collapse of three major chains last week has put 30,000 retail jobs at risk and triggered fears for the future of town centres. But the picture isn’t all bleak, according to experts including the former government retail tsar, Mary Portas, who says there is too much nostalgia and too little optimism about the future of the British high street.
“The days of stacking stuff high and selling it fast are completely and utterly over,” says Portas, who has worked in retail for more than 40 years. “The brands that dominated did that for years and they failed to offer anything beyond mediocrity. Does anyone really miss BHS? Does anyone care about Dorothy Perkins?”
On a damp Thursday afternoon in Oxford Circus, shoppers are notably thin on the ground. By Topshop’s entrance, the store DJ desperately mans the decks to meet the brief of creating “a party atmosphere” for customers. A few doors down at Debenhams, shoppers take advantage of sales across all seven floors of the flagship store. Both went into administration last week.
“We’re looking at a whole new generation who aren’t going to prop up the likes of Philip Green any more,” says Portas. “They’re not supporting businesses who don’t prioritise people or the planet. We’re moving away from that: there is a new value system at play.”
Were it not for the potential job losses, she would be singing good riddance to the dinosaurs of retail. Portas is focused on what she has dubbed “the kindness economy”, wherein she forecasts growth for high streets with an overarching philosophy that involves some kind of contribution to making life better. But what will this translate to?
Far fewer shops selling actual goods apparently, and a far stronger focus on the experiential side of things – a catch-all that takes in everything from escape rooms and nail salons, to restaurants and street performers.
In town, bricks-and-mortar stores are expected to survive if they’re able to provide something beyond the purely transactional – excellent service that can’t be replicated online, expert knowledge, or a space where people like to get together. Community hubs are frequently mentioned, while brands such as Patagonia, Glossier and Nike are cited as role models for bigger retailers.
Research routinely shows that sustainability, innovation and standing for something aren’t just buzzwords for marketers, but the keys to building brand loyalty among younger customers who demand that the companies they buy from show social responsibility. This trickles down to what sticks on high streets, where the most successful will offer a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and wellbeing.
From Stoke Newington to Stoke-on-Trent, pop-ups and local boutique businesses are also expected to thrive in high streets with strong local communities. That American Express and Google have both launched campaigns urging customers to shop local and support small businesses underlines where experts predict the future is headed.
“Covid-19 has crystallised a social and economic movement that has been bubbling under this past decade,” says Portas. “We’ve seen mass introspection and a re-examination of how we live and want to live. Globally, 77% of people now say they value decency in business as much as price and convenience. Deeper, meaningful connections with where you live will become far more important than a day trip to an out-of-town shopping centre or retail park.”
In Reading town centre, retail expert Mark Pilkington surveys Broad Street, a pedestrianised thoroughfare anchored by John Lewis. “This isn’t bad as modern high streets go: there aren’t too many boarded windows and there’s a strong mix of services – nail bars, phone repair shops and so on. It’s a common mid-market offering.” For retail to survive here, however, he predicts shops will become windows to inventory held online.
“It’s pointless to use a store as a glorified warehouses full of stuff when stock can be seen and sold online. The shop floor will shrink and it will be about engaging customers in a way that they can’t experience from their screens,” says Pilkington. While much of this focus seems bent on serving the habits of millennials, generation Z and younger, Pilkington and Portas argue that the overall restructure of the high street will benefit everyone.
“Injecting more theatre and excitement into traditional high streets increases their appeal to customers across the board. If you don’t want town centres where skinheads are mugging grannies, you have to make them an attractive place to hang out.”
This year, the government created a £95m fund to revive “historic high streets” across England. The scheme, which is being run by Historic England, identified 68 high streets that would be revitalised by the cash injection, but it focuses only on those in conservation areas. The modern-day, identikit every-town high streets blighted by boarded windows, betting shops and rundown discount outlets are also in need of attention.
If Pilkington were running a more down-at-heel high street, he would “beautify it with some sculptures and flowers. Have stores that add services or an experience – an alterations service, or repairing electronics. They will be of real value to that community, and you can’t replicate that online.”
High streets are also expected to become more residential: under new rules that came into effect in September, it is now possible to convert commercial properties – including vacant shops – into homes without planning permission. The hope is that a high street revival could be ignited by allowing commercial properties to be quickly repurposed.
The relationship between businesses and landlords is also expected to change, with rental systems becoming more flexible. In the short term, a number of retailers including All Saints and New Look, are renegotiating their lease terms to push for “turnover-based rents” to reflect the takings of individual stores. In the long-term, Pilkington says, landlords “must come to the party” if they’re serious about saving the high street.
“Leases are too long, too unyielding. Landlords need to be far more innovative and nimble and offer a space that a new business can take on and transform the look of through technology,” says Pilkington. Instead of six months of fitting a store, this way a business would “plug and play”, so that a space could be a pop-up for a well-known brand one day and a yoga studio the next.
In his book Retail Therapy: Why the Retail Industry is Broken and What Can Be Done To Fix It, Pilkington argued that the excessive level of business rates was a principal cause of the high street’s long decline. For its post-Covid future, he considers an online tax essential to reform retail.
“If local authorities really wanted to save high streets, they would make parking free and readily available. And if government cared about saving retailers, they would impose an internet tax. Amazon pays virtually no business rates.”
Portas, who was appointed by David Cameron to lead a review into the future of British high streets in 2011, believes the Conservatives have systematically failed to understand how business has changed.
“They need to wake up. It’s shameful that they have still not readjusted their thinking on how Amazon and the delivery giants should be paying equivalent rates of tax online. It’s shameful they’re not doing anything about it. Their slowness in understanding, their tardiness, is ridiculous.
“You have these delivery giants clogging up the roads, massively increasing CO2 emissions, increasing packaging, and they contribute so little. Nobody’s actually looked at the implications of what we buy, when we buy, and the effect that it has on the way we live.”