If there’s one thing I’m tired of, it’s the lack of understanding of how the British high street works. You wouldn’t say that email is dying because we also use social media, so the fact that so many journalists and commentators are saying that shops are on the way out because of online orders is, in my view, alarmist and unnecessary.
As with email and social media, shops and online shopping have different uses: you wouldn’t send a meeting agenda to your boss via Snapchat, and you wouldn’t invite your friends to come on Amazon on a Saturday afternoon. So what are the press missing?
The Daily Express have quoted a study into Britons’ shopping habits which claimed that 35 percent of over 18s “almost never” shopped on the high street, with 68% saying they did most of their shopping online.
I find this deeply flawed. Currently the UK is one of the most mature multichannel markets in the world, with the highest percentage of retail conducted online – yet 80% of retail sales still take place in a brick and mortar store! It is also potentially misleading in the context that a significant percentage of consumers choose to ‘click and collect’ – and these customers often go on to make additional purchases when they pick up their order. We live in a multichannel world, and a large percentage of consumers enjoy the convenience this offers them.
The high street isn’t going anywhere – and it certainly isn’t dying. Yes, it’s in need of an upgrade, as consumers are looking for experiential retail. They increasingly want to be entertained and engaged during the shopping experience. But there are many more factors that will determine how successful a high street will be – and it’s not just retailers who need to rethink the way their customers shop. We need to completely rethink how our infrastructure works.
Firstly, landlords need to be more flexible with their leases, particularly in city centres, enabling artisan and independent retailers and pop-ups to fill the empty spaces on the high street.
It also requires local authorities to re-think parking charges, and consider providing free parking – at least for key shopping periods. In my experience, and with more than 35 years advising retailers, our high streets need a better mix of food and leisure destinations – and, dare I say it, fewer charity shops. Shopping is an experience, a leisure activity, and a relaxation method. Viewing it pragmatically as a ‘buy and leave’ scenario fails to understand customer behaviour.
Finally, it requires the central government to reshape business rates to make them more realistic. We need policies that allow shops to thrive, hire, and invest in the best customer service and spaces possible.
Perhaps this can all be summed up in just one simple phrase: our high streets need to keep up with competition. But it’s not until landlords, local councils and government all work together will a solution become clear.