The high street isn’t dead
By Adam Sweeney
The press would have you believe that the high street has been killed by rates, wage stagnancy and Amazon. But beyond the headlines, there are signs that a new retail is emerging.
Many of the forces retailers have faced—rising rents and business rates, wage stagnation—are beyond their control. But retailers have been complicit in failing to respond quickly. Reading the 2011 Portas Report, its striking how many of its findings are still pressing issues seven years later.
Overall, the explanation is simple: retailers lost sight of their customers.
Faced with forces beyond their control and pressure from online retailers, many retail brands have optimised costs. That’s meant staff cuts, seasonal sale addiction, and seeing digital as a cost-saving measure.
People still want to meet, linger and shop.
Meanwhile, digital—encompassing new technology, services and business models—has transformed customer behaviour. Creating new customer needs and expectations, on and offline.
In good faith—no doubt powered by unreliable focus groups—retailers have boosted choice and slashed prices. Meanwhile, customers see a disjointed experience that no longer meets the standards they take for granted.
Still, the death of the high street is exaggerated. Amazon isn’t our only shop. Independent shops have opened in greater numbers. People still want to meet, linger and shop. But when they do, they aren’t after racks of sale items.
Spaces that encourage collective dwell time are growing. Market-style food halls for premium casual dining; shopping centres like Westfield that curate retailers and experiences; shared workspaces like WeWork, where the self-employed community gather to work and network. We’ve even seen online retailers move into physical retail.
Clearly, the high street isn’t dead—but it must evolve.
Smart retailers will see this slump as the moment for leadership: to radically reimagine what they do for customers, and how they are organised to deliver customer value. But to do more than PR stunts will require a retailer willing to embrace this challenge—and crucially, one that can unite their staff across the business to delight a new generation of customers.
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