2020 has been a challenging year in many respects, and retail has had a particularly confronting battle to stay viable amongst lockdowns and uncertainty. Along with well-documented stories of non-essential stores closing at the height of the pandemic and limited foot traffic for much of the year, we’ve seen many retailers forced to rethink their business model. The way retailers provide services and products has needed to adapt to the changing landscape; otherwise, businesses have been forced to make the tough decision to shut their doors permanently.
Restrictions in the movement from communities have prevented many from being able to carry out their usual shopping habits at their preferred centres which, while unsettling, has started to shine a light on what more local offerings can provide. In particular, smaller, externally focussed developments are more social distancing friendly, with the ability to serve street side and maintain a sense of comfort that larger regional centres have needed to compete against.
This potential shot in the arm for external retail spaces is occurring on the back of an already existing trend toward outdoor shopping spaces. Many larger retail centres are now implementing externally focussed Food and Entertainment precincts to offer diversity, complimenting the movement towards the ‘grab and go’ culture which was already emerging before any of us had heard of social distancing.
There is already an evident desire from customers and retailers to trade in these types of spaces. With many local planning policies shifting to encourage more eyes on the street, the jolt to customer behaviour brought on by the pandemic and eyes on supporting local businesses, it seems there is no better time to discuss what this means for High Street – which has faced its own challenges in recent years.
Rediscovering the village
As nation-wide lockdowns forced us to slow down, it spurred a dramatic shift in consumer behaviour. Pressing pause on our busy lives, many people discovered they actually enjoyed being home more; appreciating time spent with family and rediscovering their own neighbourhoods, engaging with neighbours and appreciating the importance of local business.
With ‘shoppers’ attention turned away from urban centres and a renewed focus on supporting local business, it has been encouraging to see some retailers and local eateries not only navigate the challenge brought to them but find a new lease on life. Some restaurants that only provided meals but were forced to shut down their dining experience changed their service format to become an essential service; delivering groceries, ready to eat meals and even toilet paper when it was in short supply. Now, with tables opening once more, these services remain, and in the process, local communities have banded together, finding a new sense of camaraderie and belonging in these tough times.
It will be up to all us that this newfound sense of connection to the community can continue to be embraced post-pandemic, with shoppers and businesses coming together to meet each other’s needs and support local retailers. With remote working expected to continue long term, there will arguably be more people staying in their local areas to shop and work each day.
So what does this mean for High Street? High Streets have always been a dynamic part of the retail experience, the vibrant arteries that feed and connect communities with an eclectic mix of services, experience and items. They are very much dependant on being relevant for those who use the area daily as a place of work, travel or residence, and some of the most successful high streets become the attractor themselves. For this reason, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
In recent times, the High Street’s in many areas have not been able to maintain the interest of their respective communities and the growth of the ‘For Lease’ signs on once busy streets has been well documented. Several reasons could be attributed to this depending on the location such as increased price competition from online retailers challenging the viability of brick and mortar, change in customer habits and migration to larger centres or, challenges for major anchors that once drove the streets.
But at the end of the day, customers have not been as engaged with High Streets as they once were. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to take advantage of increased community interest and potential visitation that could see certain High Streets flourish and re-strengthen the genuine connection between shoppers and shopkeepers that make these streets places we want to visit again.
One of the refreshing images coming through this pandemic is shopkeepers moving from behind the counter at the rear of the store to operating at windows on the street with shopfront serveries and curbside cafes that offer a place to stop and socialise. Social media is being leveraged to stay in touch with customers, keeping them informed but also strengthening connections through this challenging time. Notably, shop owners are now in a prime position to try and encourage their customers to keep coming back.
Setting the framework
One of the more difficult challenges facing High Street – and why ‘it’s often such a topical discussion – is the number of parties that influence its outcome. With no sole ownership group controlling the tenancy mix or future vision, change and development are far more organic and more spontaneous than the considered, structural changes in other types of retail.
Not only that, high street retail typically relies on the context and amenity that is already in place. While businesses can band together to create community Facebook groups and organise events and control what happens in their property line, it’s essential for the local community are planning to be involved in the greater context to help it thrive. With large scale events being shut down, smaller local events are popping up for those not in full lockdown. It would seem a great time for businesses and communities to come together and see the return of street fairs, pop-up markets, food trucks, special events and renewed atmosphere along their local strip.
Likewise, it may be a good time to assess the level of the amenity provided to the High Street and if it needs to evolve as other retailing experiences have over the years. District and regional centres have already been responding, lifting their comfort and amenity to keep customers coming back from the comfort of their homes to continue shopping in their centres. They have pushed to accommodate all needs are actively pushing the integration of online and offline experiences and promoting social activity and connections in the shopping experience.
High Street must do the same, and this is where local councils and communities can look to offer support by helping to transform the street themselves. This effort will ensure shopping strips have amenities they need to stay relevant and provide a distinctive experience from those that offer everything under one roof.
The struggle is not yet over, but the shifting consumer preference to shop local and support small business is a promising sign for many and certainly warrants a discussion on where our street shopping experience is going. With some careful planning, creative ideas on the retailing experiences on High Street, collaborative consideration on experience and amenity and a continued move to embrace a genuine connection to the community, we will hopefully see some vibrant new streets ahead.