The Great British high street: evolution not revolution
The Great British high street: evolution not revolution
6th Mar 2019Written by: Iain Milford

The high street is in crisis. Are we witnessing the death of the high street? Another big-name high street store goes bust…

Not my words, but those of the media. It seems any headline featuring the words ‘high’ and ‘street’ makes for dismal reading these days.

Where should I start? There’s the news that 70,000 retail jobs were lost in 2018 (with many more to come). And the prediction that 100,000 shops could be empty within a decade.

And let’s not forget the announcements by John Lewis that it’s closing its Southsea store (the first it’s closed since 2006) in July.

For many, the demise of the high street taps into our sense of nostalgia. Pick ‘n’ mix from Woolies, classic ’80s posters from Athena, and a Friday night trip to Blockbuster to choose the latest VHS. Aah, those were the days…

But enough of the sentimentality. That was then and this is now, and I’d argue those headlines are not a sign that our high streets are dying. Instead, they simply confirm the inevitable: the retail landscape is in a state of evolution.

Big retail events like Black Friday, Cyber Monday and China’s Singles’ Day prove that even though our purchasing habits are changing, we’re still willing to put our hands in our pockets (or rather our fingers on our touchscreens).

Shoppers might not be rushing to the high street, but they’re clearly happy to splash out when it suits them. Bear with me while I dish out some data.

A record $126 billion was spent online between 1st November and 31st December in the US last year – that’s an average of $2.1 billion a day. While on Singles’ Day (actually a 20-day long shopping extravaganza) shoppers merrily spent 213.5 billion yuan (an eye-watering £24 billion) in just 24 hours.

All that without even getting off the sofa.

Ultimately, the future of retail will be a blend of online and offline shopping. I’ve read at least one study that said the majority of Gen Zers look forward to shopping in stores when they have the time.

And that’s the thing – who has the time? Online shopping offers convenience and that’s why we’re choosing screens over bricks-and-mortar shops to buy what we need.

Saying that, no one wants our high streets to become totally bombarded with discount stores and charity shops. So, what does the future hold for the high street? Let me try to paint a picture for you…

With good planning and a bit of imagination, high streets can offer retail, entertainment, culture and wellbeing. The high street’s main USPs are the physical services, experiences and social interactions it provides – all things the internet and virtual reality cannot.

Of course, there’ll be fewer retailers. Those that are left will focus on the customer experience and stock won’t be held in-store anymore. Instead, shoppers will buy online and come to collect items from showrooms, trying on clothes, getting tailored tips on gadgets, and tasting wine and craft beers chosen just for them.

It doesn’t sound that bad, does it? But there’s a long way to go – and a lot of hard work involved. Until then, I think I’ll continue with my ninja shopping and spend my time tapping, swiping and clicking my way to the online checkout.

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