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The state of the high street after COVID-19

Written by Bedfordshire Chamber of Commerce | 23 Jun 2020

As shops in England re-opened last week, thousands of people flocked to high streets up and down the country. The images of people queuing outside shops are a welcome sight for retailers and prove that the high street certainly isn’t dead - despite many reports to the contrary.

Although supermarkets, pharmacies, banks and other essential shops have remained open, huge swathes of high street shops have been closed since 23rd March. While there are still restrictions in place around social distancing, the move to re-open shops shows the governments attempts to revive the economy.

Socially distanced shopping - does it really work?

With the government sticking to the 2-metre guidelines, retailers have been busy over the last few weeks preparing for how they can re-open safely. Many shops with small premises have limited numbers to two or three people in the store at a time. But this will be challenging for those retailers with business models reliant on maximum footfall.

Last month, The British Independent Retailers Association warned MPs that a fifth of its members may not reopen because it would be more expensive for them to run their shops if footfall is low.

'Shop local' paves the way for the future

However, the strong sense of community spirit that has emerged out of the coronavirus crisis could bring a renewed appreciation for the high street. People have become more protective of their local business community and new research shows that;

55% of UK consumers want to support local businesses as a result of lockdown

The continuation of home-working coupled with fewer people accessing public transport could also provide a boost to local high streets. Especially in more affluent areas where there is a good selection of independent shops.

Head of economics at WSP, Jim Coleman, says, “It is clear that social and spatial distancing affects footfall but it is also clear that high streets with lots of independent retail are doing better. People are staying local as they can’t move around or commute. We’ve learnt to localise our social and economic experience.”

Over the last few weeks, local councils have been working with retailers to get high streets back up and running. In an article from Bedford Today, Cllr Henry Vann, head of town centres and planning for Bedford Borough Council, said, “I have been really impressed by the businesses in Bedford, and the fact that 62 per cent of them are independents means they will be better placed to bounce back.”

Of course, many local retailers who didn’t have an online presence quickly moved to online so they could continue to serve their customers while forced to close. We talked about this in more depth in a recent blog post.  But, this doesn’t mean they aren’t re-opening their bricks and mortar shops and welcoming customers with open arms. Likewise, the new online offerings are unlikely to go anywhere. Moreover, this is an opportunity for retailers to get their online and in-store offerings aligned.

Taking back the high street

Let's not forget that the high street was in dire straits before coronavirus, with underutilised shopping centres and abandoned stores a common sighting in many towns across the country. We’ve seen big names shut their doors for good in recent years, including Toys R Us, Mothercare and House of Fraser. And there’s been much discussion of alternative uses for retail spaces, such as shared workspaces and spaces for start-up businesses.

But lockdown Britain has provided the high street with a new opportunity. An opportunity to build on the explosion of community spirit and allow local people to have a say on the future of their high streets.

A report by Power to Change states, “High streets are places for us to congregate, to interact, to do business but also to live our lives together. They are a vital source of meaning and belonging, allowing us to connect to the places where we live.”

The report continues, “By giving communities themselves much greater ownership and agency over high streets, we can start to rebuild this powerful sense of what a high street can be.”

The high street is certainly not dead, but it is undoubtedly changing. We’ve had to say goodbye to some of the high streets biggest names, but this could be a chance for more independent local businesses to take their spots. They can offer a more personalised experience - and we can already see their success in the most successful town centres that are mainly populated by independent businesses.

Ultimately, high streets are more than just a row of shops. They are whole ecosystems of businesses, services and people - and they all need to work together to prosper in a post-COVID-19 world.

Bedfordshire Quarterly Economic Survey May 2020

Topics: small business, retail

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