An interesting time to be studying retail. COVID-19 and the High Street.

“What an interesting time to be studying retail” is something that the REPAIR team are used to hearing from friends, family, and colleagues. We agree, and when the REPAIR project started in the latter part of 2018 we thought it was a timely piece of research. Barely a week goes by without there being something in the press contributing to the media’s narrative of the death of the high street, and interest in this has been growing. (The BBC, for example, devoted a Panorama episode in January 2020  to looking at how to save the High Street, and at the beginning of March announced that they would be following the regeneration of Bishop Auckland’s town centre as part of their #BBCMyHighStreet Project.)

The front page of our website writes “the retail sector is fundamental to many local, regional, and national economies and social structures, yet is experiencing a prolonged period of change and uncertainty.” Writing this, the change and uncertainty we were referring to were the much-cited structural changes in the retail market, such as the rise in online shopping, the general contraction in comparison retailing on our High Streets, and the resultant surge in retail vacancies as businesses entered administration and others sought to reduce their physical presence. A pandemic of a virus was not something we had considered – but that is now very real and undoubtedly having a massive impact on the retail and leisure sectors of the economy.  Even with the welcomed Government support measures put in place – such as business rates relief, job retention scheme and business support grants – the implications for these businesses will be long lasting.

Lockdown has been another game changer for retail. Only retailers deemed to be essential are currently allowed to open. Many retailers have had to close and now face an even bigger period of uncertainty.  Yet, the way retailers have handled this crisis is having a significant impact on how society perceives the retailing industry and specific retailers. Many of us have gained an increased realisation of how dependent we are on the essential retail and distribution workers, and are incredibly grateful for their selfless endeavours as they potentially expose themselves to the coronavirus on a daily basis so that we can have food on the table (and toilet roll in the bathroom). Some retailers, however, have been heavily criticised. There was some confusion surrounding what is and isn’t essential retail, with some retailers who initially flouted this policy being criticised for putting profits over the wellbeing of their staff. Other retailers have been criticised for being quick to make staff redundant, whereas those that have furloughed staff are being viewed as more socially responsible.

Prior to the pandemic, a key trend in the retail market had been the repurposing of comparison retail units into leisure uses and other services that can’t be accessed online. We at REPAIR are finalising our data before starting to conduct in-depth analysis on it, but the rise in the number of leisure premises, such as cafes and restaurants is clearly evident in our case study cities. That was, however, before the pandemic and many of these operators are now struggling to cope.  Whilst we are seeing some closed food outlets, helped by relaxed planning regulations, temporarily adapting to provide deliveries and takeaways, the vast majority have remained closed, raising questions over their future.

Many of those who follow what is happening in retail are interested in footfall figures that monitor the movement of pedestrians on our High Streets; COVID-19 is also affecting the way in which we interpret those figures. Previously there was concern that footfall was falling as shopping increasingly moved online. Those figures have now fallen to record levels – but in a bizarre turn of events we are now encouraged by such figures as they indicate that lockdown is working as people are taking heed of the message to stay home. The data sources publicly available on footfall have also increased as Google now publishes weekly community mobility reports. It will be interesting to see how these footfall figures change during lockdown and when restrictions are lifted or eased.

What is evident is that our High Streets, at a time when they were already under pressure, are being exposed to further uncertainty. Several large and small retailers and leisure operators have already had to call in the administrators and/or close for good. REPAIR could have tweeted on an almost daily basis about how bad the situation is and cited media report after media report about retailers going bust. Some of these operators have been struggling for a long time and the timing was just coincidental, whilst for others COVID-19 was the final straw.  We’ve chosen not to Tweet every time a retailer has gone bust or there was a headline that a retailer might not re-open once COVID-19 restrictions are eased.  Partly this is out of respect for those retailers and their staff who are struggling, and partly because many of the headlines are based on speculation and we don’t want to perpetuate the media’s speculative narrative of the “death of the High Street”.  Whilst many High Streets and retailers have struggled, and will do so even more now, they also have a long history of adapting and innovating. Prior to COVID-19 there were many examples of High Streets which weren’t dying, but instead were changing and adapting (or to use Twitterspeak – #EvolvingNotDying – a hashtag used by several commentators on Twitter). Hopefully, High Streets and retailers will be able to continue to adapt.

We don’t know what the future holds for retailers and leisure operators. Things have changed and will continue to change. We don’t know when rising footfall will start to be seen as a good thing again, or whether we will continue to think of retail employees as essential workers. Will we remember the retailers and companies that acted responsibly towards their employees and reward them with our custom over their competitors when places start to reopen, or will the lure of cheaper and sometimes more convenient options be too great?  In some places it has been the local shops (often independents) who traditionally have been struggling who have been able to stay open, able to deliver to their elderly customers, and had goods in stock long after their larger competitors had run out. Will people continue to support these responsive small retailers once social distancing and queuing for the supermarket becomes a memory?  Will the longer-term economic impacts of COVID-19 mean that a large majority of people will become even more price conscious and increase our use of cheaper online retailers?

I hope that when lockdown is eased we return to cafes and restaurants and are able to support our High Streets and the companies that went the extra mile for us. These actions will help our challenged leisure operators and the retail sector recover more quickly.  The reality though is that we are in a period of great uncertainty and no one really knows how long the restrictions will be in place, or if the changes in our shopping habits will fundamentally change for the better (or worse), or how many businesses will fail.  Yet, two things remain certain. First, the fate of the retail sector remains fundamental to the success of many local, regional, and national economies. Second, it continues to be an incredibly interesting time to be studying High Streets and city centre retail.


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