Have we witnessed the death of the high street?

Topshop on the high street. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons Creative licence
Topshop on the high street. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons Creative licence

In the week that Arcadia collapsed, a nostalgic Facebook chat started between my school friends sharing our retail memories. It was a rite of passage when you were first allowed to go shopping with friends on a Saturday afternoon. We’d head for TopShop to buy leggings for £2. Later on it was Saturday jobs in those same stores. And when I went to university my first Saturday job in my new home town of Brighton was at Dolcis Shoes until I finally landed the one I really wanted. That was a job at Miss Selfridge along with the street cred and discount in Arcadia brands that came with it. 

But the connection between retail chains and a day out at the shops seems to have gone for now. It’s as if the fate of our high streets and the retail brands that drew us to them, is in the balance. 

Major retail brands on the high street. Photo credit: Commons creative licence.

Major retail brands on the high street. Photo credit: Commons creative licence.

How did all this come about? My school friends and I may reminisce about walking to Miss Selfridge after school but young people in 2020 let their fingers do the walking. They shop online at brands like Boohoo and ASOS. Just add a pandemic keeping people stuck indoors and you see the collapse of the Arcadia brands and others like them with no digital strategy, and no footfall in stores. Whether or not any new businesses and brands make it to the high street, and what our town centres may look like remains to be seen, but we do know that new brands will need the convenience of digital platforms to succeed. 

Small businesses pivot to prosper 

Some Sussex businesses have been quick to adapt and pivot their business models. Brighton Gin reacted fast to the pandemic and started making hand sanitiser for NHS employees. When Georgina Burrows from Lewes found her events business had no work and noticed that egg supplies were running short in local supermarkets, she launched Sussex Egg Express delivering local produce. 

Smart brands have used their email marketing and social media effectively to connect with customers. My favourite clothing brand Collectif quickly changed their messaging and told us ‘we’re all in this together’, releasing music play lists for everyone at home and messages about self-care. 

All of which seems a million miles away from Philip Green, lining his own pockets, leaving the pension pot with a £571m deficit, and sourcing fast fashion from workers in Asia

So, how might innovative local businesses like these translate to the High Street? Can they ultimately replace the retreating retail brands, and what will happen to all that empty shop space?

Brands with a purpose

The target market for brands like Topshop is people in their 20s. Generation Z, as they are called, values brands that align with their views on social and environmental causes. Recently Pretty Little Thing found themselves at the centre of unwanted attention with their Black Friday deal of dresses for as little as 8p. There was a social media storm as people criticised this trend for fast fashion and the effect on the environment.

In fact ‘Black Friday’ is a target for criticism from many angles with its emphasis on cheap shopping that damages the environment. Libby Peake from The Green Alliance tweeted urging people to think carefully before they buy. 

This messaging resonates with young people. This is the generation that’s acutely aware of the climate crisis, who joined the school climate crisis strikes on Fridays and march and campaign about their futures. Can this generation ever be attracted to a revamped, radically different high street?  

Friday school day climate protest. Photo credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash.com

Friday school day climate protest. Photo credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash.com

New uses for old spaces 

Shoppers are not exclusively young people coming into town after school or at weekends. They’re also people of all ages shopping in the working week. This year has seen the biggest remote working experiment ever and many working people are in no mood to rush back to a working culture that was not working for everyone.

More from Sussex Bylines on this subject:

It seems unlikely office workers will go back to things exactly as they were before the pandemic. With high street retail brands failing and job losses, does this mean the centre of towns and cities will become ghost towns, or will the retail space on the high street be used differently? Will we see some imagination?

John Lewis is weighing up turning empty department stores into affordable housing. They have announced they will permanently shut eight of their stores, with a loss of 1,300 jobs. The chain, owned by employees, is looking into moving into private residential renting to put unused shop space to good use. They are looking into several different markets to move into, to expand into other areas and create different jobs. 

Will there be more of this thinking, to find different uses for those retail spaces to adapt to the post-covid world? Or will we see that it’s not the big brands who pivot and adapt? Instead it’s the smaller, local brands that seize opportunities to transform local markets? As we move into 2021, it will be fascinating to see which entrepreneurial ideas succeed.  

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