Where next for our high streets?

Author - Helen Cartwright

Date published:

With our high streets continuing to face significant challenges, many of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Arlen Pettitt, North East England Chamber of Commerce knowledge development manager, looks at the future of our traditional retail environment.

During the first few weeks of the first lockdown last year, with shops and workplaces closed and people staying at home bar one short walk a day, we were left with the eerie sight of shuttered retail units and empty streets.

The Office for National Statistics reported that in April last year, retail footfall fell to 20 per cent of its normal levels understandable given only essential shops remained open – but even as shops began to reopen last summer, shoppers were slow to return, with seven day footfall averages barely reaching threequarters of their normal volumes.

Overall consumer spending recovered more quickly, according to analysis by the Centre for Cities, getting back to February 2020 levels by June.

But, the pattern of spending and footfall had changed, with larger cities in particular feeling the strain of continued suppressed footfall and the absence of weekday workers who were still set up at home.

We’re in a different place now, with vaccine optimism and low case numbers allowing people to tentatively return to retail, leisure and hospitality venues across the country.

Although this is, of course, still an incredibly fragile recovery, and one very much exposed to increasing case numbers and the emergence of new COVID-19 variants.

And a lot of damage has already been done. Chain store closures were up 30 per cent in 2020, with around 17,500 closing and just 7600 opening, according to accountancy firm PwC.

Many of those closing were traditionally the big anchor stores on our high streets – the likes of Debenhams, John Lewis and Arcadia Group’s Topshop and Dorothy Perkins brands. Retail, as with flexible and remote working, has seen an acceleration of preexisting trends during the past year.

In this case, the ONS’s Retail Sales Index saw online sales jump from 19.1 per cent of total retail spend in February 2020, to reach 36.1 per cent by January 2021.

That represents a massive market land grab for online versus bricks and mortar retailers, made painfully obvious by Boohoo’s acquisition of the Debenhams brand – but not its stores – and the Asos deal with Arcadia, which saw it take on brands including Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge, again without their physical locations.

It’s a shift that caused retail expert Mary Portas, when interviewed by The Guardian, to proclaim, “does anyone really miss BHS? Does anyone care about Dorothy Perkins?”

Obviously, there are some that do miss and care about lost or stuttering retailers, and these big structural changes also put thousands of jobs at risk.

But that doesn’t make the need to change and evolve any less pressing. Portas preaches a new set of principles – high streets that make life better, experiences rather than transactions, expert knowledge and community space.

None of which, though, is massively groundbreaking because we are, once again, talking about an acceleration of change that was already happening.

You can already see it. Fenwick has used its flagship Newcastle store to showcase small, local producers in its food hall, and opened a new rooftop café overlooking Northumberland Street.

Greggs, which suffered its first loss as a publicly trading company because of the difficulties of last year, is still pushing on opening new stores. Interestingly, it has launched a partnership with Just Eat to provide customised sandwiches for

For chief executive Roger Whiteside, this is part of a plan to put the focus on customer loyalty, saying retail winners will be those who know their customers’ names.

In Stockton, where the council has already taken a hands-on role with the regeneration of the town centre, the Castlegate Shopping Centre is set to be demolished and replaced with a riverside park, new offices and a library.

The aim here is to put the retail focus back on the historic high street, while creating new community space, with plans designed by Chamber member Ryder Architecture.

Stockton is experiencing national retail trends in a microcosm. It lost its Woolworths, along with the rest of the country, in 2008, then its Marks & Spencer after more than 100 years, then Debenhams (also after more than a century), then New Look.

Those would be big holes on any high street. Stockton, along with most of the rest of the North East (Newcastle, Gateshead, South Tyneside, County Durham, Darlington, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland and Sunderland), was among the first cohort of local authorities to receive support from the Government’s High Streets Task Force, whose board includes Stuart Miller, of Chamber Partner Newcastle Building Society.

These areas will receive mentoring, visioning and place-making support from a panel of experts – including Jonathan Wallace from another Chamber Partner, the specialist planning consultancy Lichfields.

Vision, and Government support, will be crucial to reinvigorating our region’s high streets, towns and city centres.

Each place will need something different, but chances are the Mary Portas principles of experience, knowledge and community will play a part in all of them.

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