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'Major rethink needed' as high street faces five more years of pain

As the UK high street battles unprecedented levels of job losses and store closures, retailers are being urged to work with councils and landlords to create a more engaging high street experience.

The Office for National Statistics has reported that 80,000 jobs were lost from the UK high street in the first six months of the year, and a further 5,000 understood to have been lost between July and October.

Meanwhile, the gap between the number of stores closing and those opening on the UK’s top 500 high streets has reached record levels. A total of 1,123 closed, while store openings reached a record low of 1,569, new research for PwC compiled by the Local Data Company has shown.

A total of 121 fashion shops closed across the top 500 high streets between January and July this year, while 99 opened.

Retailers and industry experts have told Drapers a more collaborative approach is needed to improve the outlook.

“I think it will be a minimum of five years before it improves,” one high street chairman noted. “Individual brands can’t save the high street. It’s up to landlords, councils and retailers but it’s going to take a long time.”

The managing director of one high street multiple warned: “We’ve got to restore consumer confidence and bring more stability.

“In the new year we might see some more casualties, particularly if it’s a mediocre Christmas. More stores will close.”

With empty store fronts haunting many shopping areas, a major rethink of high street spaces is required, Lisa Hooker, head of consumer markets at PwC, said: “High streets will become more destination areas, whether that’s through shared working space or health or leisure.

”Landlords, the council, retailers and consumers [need to come together] to say what they want longer term. [In future] not every high street will look the same, they will have different priorities.”

One menswear agent said improving the shopping experience was key: “The blueprint doesn’t work any more. Whether you’re a giant department store chain like Debenhams or a small boutique in Scotland, you’ve got to have much more activity. If you don’t try to entertain your customer when they walk in the door, they’ll go elsewhere.”

The independent sector is expected to buck the trend and grow by 0.3% by 2025, research by GlobalData for American Express forecasts.

“Independents are picking up trends quickly and implementing them, particularly around health and beauty,” explained Maureen Hinton, group retail research director for GlobalData. “People want experiences and retail needs to tap into that. Independents know their customers very well, which is a real advantage.”

Simon Whitaker, CEO of menswear independent Master Debonair in East Boldon, Tyne and Wear, said this personal service is a real benefit: “The high street is crying out for independents that offer curated, interesting product and good service.

“As a smaller business we can be really agile. A lot of businesses talk about customer service, but we go out of our way to deliver excellence online and in store. Independents can offer a really personalised service that multiples can’t.”

Michele Poynter, owner of independent lingerie retailer Mish in Wadebridge, Cornwall, agreed: “Independents are more resilient thanks to the service and experience that is offered. We can’t compete on price or online delivery but the difference between the indies and the multiples is the service and knowledge that is available to shoppers and the experience that is offered to them.”

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