A New Lease of Life for Retail?

15 Jul 20

For high streets to meet consumer needs in the future, an agile planning framework will need to be paired successfully with technology. High streets have to become ‘smart’ such that they are aligned with how customers shop and engage with brands.

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Our high streets are back – retail reopened, alfresco dining and gyms not far away.

However, despite initial queues following easing of restrictions, shopper numbers are well below pre-lockdown levels. The British Retail Consortium found that footfall in June was down 63% compared to 2019. Retail parks have proved more resilient (34% down), due to larger stores and car parks and a greater proportion including supermarkets. Shopping centres were the worst affected (68% down) demonstrating that shoppers remain nervous about travelling into centres and enclosed spaces.

Despite the furlough scheme, retailers are already showing signs of the scale of the economic impact the pandemic has had on the sector. Even stalwarts of the high street, such as John Lewis and Boots, have announced store closures and staff cuts. 

High streets are vital to the UK economy. The ONS (2018) found that high streets in London accommodated 200,000 businesses and nearly 1.5 million jobs (28% of all jobs in the Capital). The decline is a major concern and has triggered direct political action with the new ‘Eat Out to Help Out Scheme’ and a reduction in VAT to 5% for the hospitality sector. The Government has taken proactive measures to encourage shoppers back to the high street.

The Government has also pledged a new planning framework that will offer flexibility for commercial premises to minimise vacant floorspace. Changes to the Use Class Order will be enacted in September allowing vacant retail to change to cafes or offices without planning permission. Residential will also be a permitted change and is seen as a key use in town centres of the future. New residential communities will help to solve the chronic shortage of housing land and provide customers and expenditure for local businesses. 

The Government has identified innovation as critical to helping the property market keep pace with commercial sectors. One such example is the Outernet’s Urban Galley at 1 St Giles Square. Due to open in 2021, the LED clad Urban Gallery will form part of the Outernet (www.outernetglobal.com) which will be the first of a global network of immersive entertainment districts showcasing music, film, arts and retail experiences. 

For high streets to meet consumer needs in the future, an agile planning framework will need to be paired successfully with technology. High streets have to become ‘smart’ such that they are aligned with how customers shop and engage with brands. It was recently announced that 12 Suffolk towns are to be part of the project ‘Smart Towns’, providing free Wi-Fi, online promotions and footfall tracking data. It will enable businesses to better understand customer needs, provide targeted marketing and optimisation measures such as bespoke opening hours.

Flexibility and innovation will be essential if the high street will remain a relevant part of our daily lives. These changes are not due to COVID, but it has acted as a catalyst to the speed in which they must be realised.

Clara Blagden Associate,Planning

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