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Guest post: Adapting for survival - Is the British High Street in need of rescue?

The rise in e-commerce is shifting consumer behaviour from the high street, to online. As vacancy rates spiral out of control and the demise of Debenhams and Arcadia Group fuels the population of shuttered shops on the high street, David Tattersall questions if its time to send in the cavalry.

The coronavirus pandemic relit the spark for high street businesses as public health guidance urged individuals to travel locally. As shoppers took to their local high streets to source essentials and regain access to society, this reignited footfall and the long-lost attraction of the high street. Covid-19 presented an opportunity to local tradespeople to rebuild a loyal customer base, and campaign for shoppers to redirect spend to their hometowns to help local business owners survive the pandemic.

As members of the local community rediscovered their high streets, supporting both independent stores and retail giants, high streets across the country reacted by extending their services to maximise income in light of Covid-19.

As the roadmap out of lockdown restricted dining to outdoor spaces only, local authorities granted temporary pavement licence provisions to help businesses in their fight for survival. Triggering instant popularity for al-fresco dining and driving the rapid redevelopment of local dining spaces, the pandemic rejuvenated barely surviving businesses.

Government initiative to revive high streets

The government unveiled the Build Back Better High Streets strategy in July 2021, a long-term plan to regenerate British high streets and revive them as the central hub of each town to work, visit and live in. The plan addresses five core action points to achieve this vision that includes:

  1. Breathe new life into empty buildings
  2. Support high street businesses
  3. Improve the public realm
  4. Create safe and clean spaces
  5. Celebrate pride in local communities

High streets are at the front line of every town, mirroring the local business community and homegrown entrepreneurship. Failing to recover empty units, abandoned shops and derelict buildings could result in missed opportunities for small business owners and community groups where establishing a physical high street presence could attract greater footfall and increase accessibility.

The biggest recent casualty of the high street was Debenhams, that buckled under the weight of increased competition and the shift to online shopping. The household brand operated 118 stores across the country, leading to a combined 14 million sq. ft of retail space becoming vacant alongside the collapse of Arcadia Group, according to Retail Gazette.

The strategy aims to address vacant buildings by breathing new life into empty stores. By granting development rights, creative flexibility and scrapping archaic red tape blocking empty buildings from being repurposed, the government strategy aims to revive empty spaces. The initiative welcomes new housing developments where blocks of empty shops lie and creates a new purpose for individuals to visit and invest in the high street.

Community support – The new £150 million Community Ownership Fund provides communities with the funds required to buy or take over community assets at risk of being lost. This increases the assets owned by local communities, attracts a physical presence from service users and helps nourish the identity of local communities.

National High Streets Day – As part of the government’s strategy to help high streets reclaim their identity as a community and social cornerstone, National High Streets Day will celebrate communities and drive clean-up efforts.

“Through our record investment in local public services, we will make high streets safer and cleaner with more police and a laser-like focus on cleaning up litter and graffiti,” said Boris Johnson, Prime Minister in his foreword.

This will be supported by a £10 million fund to remove stains and chewing gum off high streets.

Greener High Street infrastructure –The opening of Sheffield Peace Gardens and other public space improvements increased shopping visits by 35%, and customer spending by £4.2 million. This provides evidence that greener spaces in high streets attract footfall and can therefore boost spend through increased shopping visits, bolstering the agenda of the new Build Back Better High Streets strategy.

Securing the future of high streets

High streets are the nucleus of communities and entrepreneurship and employment opportunities stems from such commercial hubs. Without proper maintenance and investment in our high streets, the future is lined with empty shops caught by the Covid-19 storm.

The British Retail Consortium reported a 77.8% year-on-year decline in shopping footfall, tipping the situation from bad to worse. As ‘ghost town’ high streets blow away the cobwebs, the rise in vacancy rates only contributes to a larger web of missed opportunities for retailers. To facilitate a rescue, businesses need to adapt to changing customer habits, modernise marketing efforts and attract a new generation of open-minded shoppers.

The rise in e-commerce is shifting consumer behaviour from the high street, to online. By proactively addressing ways to stay ahead of trends, and draw consumers back to the high street experience, businesses can combine their efforts to promote an in-store experience and dive into the world of online shopping. As British high streets start a new chapter of trading post-Covid-19, will this be enough to reignite the fire?

About the Author

David Tattersall heads up the Client Relations function at Handpicked Accountants, a renowned online network housing tried and tested accountants across the UK. Supporting small business owners looking for an accountant, David also advises company owners on business health, including Covid-19 financial recovery. 

What does the future hold for British High Streets?

Join Government and industry experts to address the future of the high street at Securing The Future Of High Streets virtual event on the 2nd November.

Explore the factors in the decline in the UK’s high streets pre-Covid, the impact Covid-19 has had and how high streets are adapting to suit the 21st century.

The key themes and issues facing the future of the high street will be addressed through a combination of keynote speeches, in-depth case studies and high-level presentations. This will provide a comprehensive overview of the future of our high streets.

View the agenda and secure your place here.

Article written by
Danielle Chapman

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