The death of the High Street as simply a shopping destination has long been predicted, first due to the rise of the out of town retail parks, then to the growth of online shopping.
While it is true that consumer buying habits and focus have been shifting, the fact is that humans are social animals and will always seek places where they can gather and interact.
However, with each generation, interests, tastes and behaviours change to reflect identity and priorities. These are influenced by social change and new developments such as those offered by new technologies, new ways for social interaction, allocation of time, travel, the way homes are designed, and even the changing weather patterns.
Misread signals and lack of agility
As early as 2013, in one of its regular assessments of consumer behaviour and the role of the high street, Deloitte found that while undeniably consumers were changing “the high street will continue to be an important place where innovative, consumer-focused businesses will grow and thrive,” despite the undoubted challenges.
Other studies have since sought to define more clearly what has been going on and why retailers have been struggling.
Kantar Worldwide identified two specific aspects in the UK, a decline in seasonal shopping and shoppers “waiting for the sales and buying things out of season”.
Some retailers, say analysts, have been far too rigid, in sticking to their seasonal buying cycles then having to constantly discount to shed surplus stock. Essentially, they failed to get to know their customers well enough. Not only that, but there have been no significant changes in “must have” fashion so that people can keep on wearing and recycling what they already own – an example being skinny jeans, still ubiquitous in clothing stores a decade since they were first launched.
Arguably, a second factor has been the merging of the seasons in recent years, certainly in the UK, where there have been several years of only moderate temperature and weather changes over the yearly cycle.
There are other, generational factors at work. Millennials, who are IT savvy and habitually online shoppers, have been shown to value experiences, and showing them off on social media, more than shopping. Millennials also don’t want to be ‘marketed to’. Despite this they buy food, clothes and household products, the subtlety for the High Street is that they don’t want to feel they are being manipulated by powerful corporations, they want to discover rather than be discovered.
The desire for shopping as an experience rather than simply shopping to buy goods is not confined to millennials and offers a real future for the High Street, one that can compete with shopping complexes that are clearly aimed at ‘marketing to’ visitors.
Offering experiences – an opportunity for the Service sector
Walk around any provincial High Street and you will find a plethora of places to snack and chat (coffee shops, bistros, wine bars), estate agents and travel agents, interspersed with the remaining clothes and department stores. The latter have arguably survived by becoming more agile in offering not only physical goods, but also click and collect destinations and the opportunity to order online in-store if a product is not available.
But you will also find significant numbers of independent small, specialist shops for cheese, coffee, craft ware, home ware, nail bars, tattooists and, above all books. Then there are the pop-up shops where new enterprises can showcase their ideas or merchandise for a limited time and get a feel for their potential market.
That there is still confidence in the High Street shows in Amazon’s move into physical retail space with the opening of its book store in New York and several more planned. Google, too, has opened pop-up stores and is said to be increasingly focused on physical stores.
So, the High Street is evolving, not dying, but those in the service sector who can see a thriving future there will also need to see more agility in support from civic planners and regulators, who will need to move away from their rigid structures of what is permissible in urban High Street buildings and from charging high business rates and rents for those spaces.