Reshaping the future of retail

Retail constantly evolves while our high streets remain far from dead. The landscape still promises fertile lands, where emerging sources of demand are reshaping the old ways and heralding new opportunities for savvy operators. Jonathan Chapman reflects

We’ve all heard the cries that the high street is gone; doomed to become a distant, long cherished memory of a golden retail age, echoed the length and breadth of the land. We’re told that shoppers will never come back, turning their backs in their droves on our high-street brands to shop online from the comfort and convenience of their own home. Assured convictions; bolstered by the shattering impact of the pandemic.

But above the clamour, no-one seems to have told consumers, who have returned in their millions as non-essential retail opens for business after months of unfortunate closure. Indeed, to paraphrase the great American writer Mark Twain: reports of the death of the high street do appear to be exaggerated.

While there’s no disguising the depressing sight of vacant high street units and boarded up shop fronts, it’s important that we take the chance to delve a little deeper to understand why this is the case – and discover what can be discerned from it all.

Certainly, a poor location can contribute to a lacklustre performance and declining footfall. Competitors may have secured better pitches close by, or you may be the victim of factors beyond your control.  For instance, the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on retailers, food outlets and leisure operators who cater for nearby office buildings bereft for months of workers. It could be sometime before people return in their numbers to pre-Covid levels.

There are other factors at play, too. Retailers with vacant premises on their hands might be the victims of operators merging with one another – suddenly, there are multiple stores within striking distance of one another. I experienced this when Birthdays and Clinton Cards merged, leaving a surfeit of competing sites on our hands.

Changing consumer tastes and social mores also have a huge impact. For example, smart phones enable people to quickly and easily download apps from the betting operators, placing their bets at the click of button at home rather than visiting the nearest bookie.

But out of chaos, comes order – or perhaps reorder as we look to reshape, redefine and reinvigorate our high streets. There will always be entrepreneurial retailers on the horizon, buzzing with fresh ideas, new optimism and renewed impetus; on the look-out for the right retail location for their ventures. Vape shops are one topical example, but before that we had sunbed shops, Turkish barbers, oriental medicines and even spas offering fish pedicures.

Indeed, the work-from-home era could generate more trade for local independents, convenience stores and good old-fashioned retail parades, who are better placed to cater for the needs of remote workers than the larger, more distant supermarkets.

I have also noticed that some people are choosing to use the pandemic as an opportune moment to look afresh at their lives. And this includes those who have been made redundant but are now grabbing the bull by the horns to pursue new adventures or set up their own business. Food-led retailers – Subways, Greggs, Costa et al – are also busy acquiring and will all be in the market for new sites in the future.

There’s no question we are living through strange times. The one constant in all this is that there will be change, especially for retail. For those who possess the vision, ambition and acumen, the chance is there to reshape the future of retail and usher in a new age of opportunity and growth.