The decline of the high street is a story we have all become familiar with, even before to the arrival of the dreadful Covid 19 pandemic. Following a lockdown of several months, how can town centres survive this latest blow? Should we be saving the high street or reinventing it?
The steady decline in the high street has been evident since the late 90s. No-one can forget the disappearance of such flagships as Woolworths, Dixons and BHS. According to a BBC news article, “The Centre for Retail Research states that there are around 50,000 fewer shops on our High Streets than just over a decade ago.” Debenhams has gone and John Lewis is now in trouble. In fact, an article by the BBC indicates that John Lewis already “expects 70% of its sales to be online by 2025”
Why is the high street failing?
There are several key reasons for the declien in high-street footfall.
- An increase in online purchasing
- Astronomical and rising business rates
- Decline in the real wage
- Expansion of out of town malls
- Problems with parking
The Covid 19 lock-down has exacerbated these already significant challenges, meaning that many businesses, often the largest cannot survive.
How can the high street survive?
There has been an argument for a while, that in order to survive, the high street has to adapt. It never could compete with the larger out-of-town retailers. It needed to define its role in other ways.
Living here in Urmston, a suburb in south Manchester, I have seen the local high street begin to transform over the last few years. I think this is a model that might suggest a way for other high streets to rise again after the pandemic.
Our town centre is only a couple of miles away from the glamorous shopping experience at The Trafford Centre. Opened in 1998, and costing £600 million, the Trafford Centre offered a full retail experience. 150 shops, Europe’s largest food court, the UK’s busiest cinema and restaurants and bars, meant that it could be a full day out. Owned by Intu, The Trafford Centre has seen its own fortunes fall. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown have seen the Trafford Centre go into administration.
Intu owned 14 shopping centres in the UK, but rising business rates and most significantly the increase in online retail meant that the business model was already struggling, with over £4 billion of debt.
When the Trafford Centre opened over 20 years ago, Urmston town centre, had become a collection of pound shops, small retailers and a Somerfield. Gradually small retailers were disappearing and the town was looking sad.
The investment in a newly designed town centre, with multi-storey car par, new library and a new Sainsburys and Aldi, has brought life back to the town centre. There is a pleasant town “square” and the community began to gather here again.
Despite this, the main high street on Flixton Road, was still struggling. Companies such as Johnsons dry cleaners gradually disappeared, leaving vacant properties.
Independent small businesses offering that something extra.
The gradual revival of Urmston high street, which began before the pandemic, was entirely community led. I have written in my blog article “Independent small business is thriving in Urmston” , which highlights the arrival of a variety of independent retailers, bars and cafes in recent years. None of these attempt to directly compete with the large retailers found only a couple of miles away at the shopping mall.
What has been the secret to their success, so far?
Each retailer has worked hard to identify a niche and offer an experience beyond just shopping. We have a fishmonger, florists, a speciality cheese shop, wine and craft beer shops, an independent bookshop and independent fashion retailers, bars and cafes.
The difference here is the level of cosy familiarity, customer service, genuine pride in the area and the local loyalty factor. Retailers have rallied around each other, even joining a local Indie Urmston group. One business supports and promotes the others widely on social media and actually, in terms of combining their talents to mean that Urmston is developing a pride and determination to thrive.
The arrival of the pandemic and the lockdown, of course, damaged the retail sector here. The difference was the quick response by the retailers locally to find other ways to survive. Shops who had never had an online presence quickly sought out web designers to carve out their online shop.
The genius shopping app.
One factor in the survival of the business locally is an app called Shocal. Standing for Shop Local, Shocal, itself a local creation, was launched in autumn 2019 and it offers shoppers access to a multitude of shops, where they can make their online purchase and a Shocal driver will deliver the product to your door. Designed by Urmstonite Max Thorley, Shocal is a way of keeping the high street alive for customers, who may not usually find the time to get there, or in cOvid lockdown, even be able to visit.
Indeed, businesses have found that customers, who otherwise might be working or unable to get to the shop, have been making orders. You can see a local news report here
Of course, once the pandemic struck, Shocal came into its own! Small retailers were still able to sell their products, without opening their doors to the public. The designers of Shocal, I believe, have created a fantastic combination of online retail, while still ensuring the existence of a local premises.
Here in Urmston the town centre has bravely weathered the storm of the Covid lockdowns and as we head towards the summer there are hopes that many businesses will fortunately come out the other side intact. None of this could have been possible without an online presence and despite the sadness of seeing many long standing company names disappear to online only sales, perhaps there is a place for these small retailers to make their mark.