The high street keeps evolving – but it is far from dead

January 5, 2021

It’s fair to say that 2020 was a challenging year for bricks-and- mortar retail and hospitality businesses – but even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there are reasons to be positive about the future of our high streets, says Graham Soult.

While the collapse of big names like Debenhams and Arcadia has understandably captured headlines, the problems of struggling chains typically go back much further than COVID-19.

Debenhams, for example, is a business saddled with debt, and with too many stores on onerous leases.

Arcadia, meanwhile, has failed to invest enough in its iconic brands, e-commerce sites or instore ‘wow factor’, and has fallen behind rivals as a result.

However, for every struggling retailer, there is another showing how it’s done. The enforced closure of ‘non-essential retailers’ during lockdown impacted everyone, but those with desirable products, efficient operations and a clear sense of who their customers are – such as Next and Primark – have been best equipped to bounce back.

At the same time, one silver lining of the pandemic has been consumers’ growing appetite to ‘shop local’.

During the first lockdown, many shoppers discovered, or rediscovered, the appeal of local, independent shops, and there is a strong sense of that trend having continued.

Again, none of this is new, but COVID-19 has turbocharged the high street trends that were already underway before: the relative decline of big-name stores; a renewed appetite for distinctive, local experiences; and, alongside, a recognition that the most successful
high streets are those that combine shopping with a wide range of social and community uses.

Durham, where I manage the Indie Durham City business support project for City of Durham Parish Council, exemplifies many of these trends.

Some national chains have indeed departed – mostly due to problems or strategy changes at the UK level – but there is also plenty of cause for optimism.

Major developments in the city show it remains a popular place to invest and do business, while a raft of new independent retail openings in November and December demonstrate that, even amid adversity, there is opportunity.

With 2021 bringing more city centre housing, leisure and hotels – plus the long-awaited Durham Distillery attraction – Durham is doing all the right things.

For too long, we encouraged mono-use retail quarters that were deserted after hours and made every city look and feel the same.

The emerging high street is vibrant, mixed-use and full of local personality – which is something to be genuinely positive about.