Renaissance on the High Street

by Jaywing

Adrian Langford, Director of Strategy and Planning at Jaywing, explores the impact of COVID on shopping behaviours.

Yes, you read the headline correctly. The death of shopping has been pronounced as often as the death of television, and probably by the same people. But the devil is in the detail, and behind the breathless headlines, we can see wild variations in the fortunes of different retail categories and different shopping environments.

Campaign Insight webinar – Pinterest, Portas and reinventing the shopping experience – retail guru Mary Portas got somewhat closer to the truth when she hailed the growing success of local retailers, supported by a more conscientious shopper.

Commentators saw the upsurge in online shopping during the various lockdowns as driving the final stake into physical retail, but they are guilty of lazy thinking when they talk blithely about the death of the “high street”, as if this term adequately covers vastly different sectors of the retail landscape including destination malls, city centres, retail parks, and the genuine “high street” of the suburbs and small towns.

In fact retail parks proved their resilience during the pandemic, since they contained the highest proportion (29 per cent) of retailers deemed essential and allowed to remain open during this period, as well as playing a central role in “click-&-collect” supply chains (Portas confessed to feeling excited to find herself in a snaking queue for B&Q recently). By contrast, destination shopping centres contained only 15 per cent of these essential retailers, so those outlets which managed to open had much lower footfall, failing to cover much higher operating costs.

Portas conjured a blizzard of statistics to support her view that we were moving towards a “kindness economy”. Eighty-two per cent claimed they want to deal with brands they trust, 72 per cent want brands to have an impact on society, 70 per cent of us will pay a premium for environmentally responsible brands, and 63 per cent will favour socially responsible brands. Impressive numbers, but I know what Mandy Rice-Davies would have thought of them.

What’s really convincing is looking at people’s behaviour, not their claimed behaviour. We don’t know how working patterns will settle down, but if we still spend a four day week in the offices on which city centre retail largely relies, then that’s 20 per cent of lunchtime and evening spending being diverted to the suburban high street in the long-term. And though I take all the claimed “ethical” statements with a large grain of salt, it does seem as if people have become more committed to independent local businesses, regardless of which side of the “culture war” they’re on. Deloitte has found that independent shops have grown by 1.3 per cent since 2017, and that local high street vacancy rates have remained steady since 2013. This confirms that the high street is capable of constant reinvention. Small landlords can’t afford empty premises, so barriers to entry are low, and new retail ideas can emerge and be tested so that the high street rapidly evolves to meet the needs of local shoppers.

So the local high street at least has a bright future. If you still insist that the future of retail is online only (and Pinterest’s representatives at the same Campaign webinar were cheerleading for this), then looking at real behaviour is again a useful corrective. All 10 of the retail categories showing the highest growth since 2013 do not sell physical products, they sell things for the “self” such as health, hair, beauty, and socialising. Try putting that in an Amazon box.