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It’s been nearly two months since non-essential high street stores opened up their doors to the public following Covid-19 lockdown. Yet we’re still split between wanting to get outside and ordering from the safety of our homes. In a world where we still can’t try on clothes in our favourite stores, how will the high street recover?

It’s been tough for the high street

British retailers were battle weary after 2019 which was their worst year on record. Not even the huge growth in online shopping for retailers such as John Lewis and Curry’s PC World helped to offset the downturn on the high street, as shoppers spent their spare cash on leisure and experiences rather than clothes and homewares. 

And then, Covid-19 forced shoppers onto the internet. Even the most diehard of retail traditionalists got past the initial friction of setting up an online account. And a staggering 82% of us are now ‘comfortable’ with doing most of our daily shopping online.

The Centre for Cities says footfall in Liverpool and Manchester plummeted by 80% during the pandemic – 91% in central London. Even following the re-opening of the high street in June, footfall was 65% lower than last year as struggling retailers face axing more than 250,000 jobs. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom

Research from Vista Retail Support found that four in five UK consumers prefer the experience of going to physical stores when they need to shop. This might explain why one positive to come from the effects of Covid-19 has been an increase in sales for local and small businesses. 

Two fifths of the British public turned to shops near their homes for food and drink. But research suggests that even once the pandemic has passed, this trend is likely to continue. 70% of those who shopped locally intend to do so post lockdown.

Getting back to normal

Whilst there’s no magic bullet for returning to a sense of equilibrium, it seems the solutions lie in a blend of experience-led destinations. Such experiences need to be thoughtfully presented so they work even in a post-Covid context.

High street destinations need to find ways of adding value to the customer. And showing they care about the personal concerns of their target audience. 

A great example of value-driven retail experience comes in the form of Burberry’s new “Social Retail” store in Shenzhen, China. Powered by technology, the store is a space of exploration, designed to inspire and entertain luxury audiences. It offers a truly interactive experience with interactive store windows and walls, QR codes, café menus that evolve for customer tastes and themed changing rooms. As well as a dedicated WeChat mini program for unlocking exclusive content, personalised experiences and rewards.

More locally, there have been reports and rumours of pedestrianising both Soho and Seven Dials to allow space for social distancing. With outdoor eating and market-style stalls outside stores, consumers can enjoy an experience that is safe and comfortable. Businesses can also take full advantage of the space around them.

Bringing high street experiences to life

Our own retail placemaking work currently covers the rethinking of Coventry City centre, plus growing towns such as Basildon, Reading and Southampton. 

We are discovering that it’s no longer enough to simply provide the products. We need to create a sense of unique place that people want to spend time in, rather than just carry out a transaction.

Similarly, from a brand perspective, the experience economy is growing at an exponential pace. Consumers want to have an experience around their purchase. So, brands that are able to provide consumers with new experiences and contribute culturally are the ones future-proofing themselves against the decline of the high street. 

With vacancy rates already standing at 11.1% in England, 11.9% in Scotland and 14.5% in Wales even before Covid-19, it’s clear that the government, local councils, landlords, retailers and dare we say it – lateral thinkers – have to collectively and urgently figure out how to make rents, rates and rethinking align in order to bring the people back.

 

If you’d like to talk to us about placemaking and brand experience, drop a message to hello@underscore.co.uk or speak to the team on +44 (0)20 7631 8400.

Underscore offers the following placemaking services:
– Brand strategy
– Community engagement
– Digital strategy
– Masterplan strategy