The UK retail crisis was already raging in 2019. The news was full of the collapse of major retailers and that was before COVID lockdowns forced the closure of all non-essential shops.
The year that followed saw the collapse of the Arcadia Group, Debenhams and the retail landlord, Intu. Over five years, 60,000 stores closed and more than half a million job were lost. Many people struggled to imagine how the high street could survive.
But survive it has. While most high streets will bear the scars for some time, many are showing signs of recovery as independent businesses occupy the places vacated by the multiple stores. Town centres, criticised for years for being ‘clone towns’ may even emerge better, more resilient and a lot more interesting.
This is the key finding of a piece of a book published this month. High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis is written by myself, Lucy Montague from Manchester School of Architecture and Vicky Payne, now at the Quality of Life Foundation. Together we were awarded The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851’s Built Environment Fellowship in 2019 to study the crisis on the high street.
There has been no shortage of suggestions about what should be done as local authorities bid for funds from the government’s £1 billion Future High Streets Fund. However, before we prescribe the medicine, we should be sure of our diagnosis. We needed to understand what is really happening on high streets across the country and the economic and social forces they face.
This was the starting point for the book. We talk about the ‘high street’ as if it were one place, but London’s Oxford Street has little in common with the high streets of Dundee, Derry or Doncaster, or with the Meadowhall shopping centre for that matter. Even places that seem similar can face radically different challenges. Sometime the differences come down to one individual or group, who took the initiative and made things happen.
None of this diversity is captured in national data. So the research set out to tell the tales of a hundred high streets. The stories combine data from Experian’s town centre reports with interviews, site visits and local news stories. The research used a loose definition of high street, the stories including: IKEA, the big four supermarkets, retail parks and Aldi as well as nine online ‘high streets’; Amazon, eBay, Spotify, Ocado, Boohoo, Alibaba, Etsy, Gumtree and Deliveroo.
The physical places include 11 large cities and regional centres, 12 smaller cities/larger towns, 35 towns, 10 smaller towns and villages, 13 high streets and suburban centres and six out-of-town centres. They included around 55,000 shops and 160 million square feet of floor space. There are 257,250 retail outlets in the UK so our stories represent a 21% sample. As well as showing the big picture, the data is gloriously detailed, we know how many beauty salons there are in Aberystwyth, and can see how the fishmonger in Welling did not make it through COVID. We can chart the death of the video rental store alongside the modest revival in record shops and the exponential growth in ‘tobacconists’ (vaping shops).
The picture that emerges is rich and complex. Some places, it is true, are struggling but elsewhere new sectors are emerging and independents are filling the voids left by the collapsed chains.
We are also seeing a return to the high street. The supermarkets are opening metro stores, Ikea is opening town centre stores including Oxford Street and many online retailers, big and small are also opening physical stores. It turns out that people really like the communal experience of shopping, of touching and feeling the goods, of coming across things that they weren’t looking for and didn’t know they needed. The future is one dominated by the Internet but one where ‘omnichannel’ starts to blur the distinction between virtual and physical retailers. This relates not only to large retailers like Next but small independents that can reach a huge market, via online sales.
So, there is an alternative story of the British high street; one that is much more nuanced and detailed than the headlines suggest. One which shows how the high street is resilient and evolving and could end up in a much more diverse and interesting place that we ever thought possible before the crisis.