It’s virtually certain that if you open a paper or browse your news online on any particular day, somewhere there will be a story about a major and well-known brand about to hit the rocks as our High Street shops endure their worst ever times.
High Streets Worse Than Ever?
Hit by a ‘perfect storm’ of lack of consumer spending - due to political uncertainty, higher wage bills, online sales, a weaker pound making imports expensive, people buying less in general and rents and rates that haven’t taken any of this in to account. Walk in to many department stores even in peak times and you are likely to be surprised by the lack of activity, low stock levels and unenticing items for sale.
Many have voiced concern and have suggested ways to stop the rot but might this be just a gesture worthy of King Canute himself? Can anything stop the tide?
Perhaps. But we will probably have to hit rock bottom first.
As shops like Mothercare, Thomas Cook, Debenhams etc etc vacate the shops often occupied for decades, in the short term, town centres will look decimated, bleak and unwelcoming as bright window displays are replaced with whitewash, To Let signs or low-level temporary shops.
But what, in part at least drove them away – rents – will in time be adjusted as landlords quickly realise that they will have to reduce to entice a new occupier. In time too, councils will realise that rates, historically linked to rent, will have to be more realistic (although this will create a shortfall elsewhere of course).
Will the High Street Ever Be the Same?
The days of high stock levels, where every item was available in multiple sizes and colours have gone and been replaced by tech and efficient same or next day delivery systems. Shops won’t need huge stock rooms, a few items with iPad style browsing and ordering will work well.
Redundant stock rooms and upper floor staff rooms will all be converted to residential use with the dual benefit of increasing the housing stock and, with people once again actually living in our towns, there will be an increased footfall, activity in the evenings and a need for local facilities such doctors, dentists, convenience stores, gyms and so on.
Town centres already have great transport links, the buildings are good quality and are well served by broadband so they’re ready to go as soon as landlords and their tenants realise that this is most likely the only workable solution.
Lifestyle uses will have to become more prominent. When we no longer need to visit the town to buy essentials why will we still go there? Cafes, barbers, nail shops, tattoo parlours, Pound shops, and restaurants all cater for things that cannot be done online and have been some of the few success stories in recent years.
Shops will have to specialise and provide better advice and service to tempt us offline. Empty shops could become soft play centres, martial arts gyms, weight loss clubs, waste-free retailers, art galleries, antique centres. The choice should not be between a vacant property or a charity shop.
With residential conversion and innovation, our town centres can once again begin to thrive. We should begin to put all of that valuable bricks and mortar to good use as soon as we can!