As the economic devastation brought on by the pandemic becomes more evident, more and more high street brands find themselves falling victim to the changing times.
The collapse of both Arcadia Group and Debenhams show that stores are finding their demise accelerated due to the current inability to even open a till. Whilst reports list several high-profile buyers, such as ASOS, displaying interest over the bankrupt Topshop empire, Debenhams has already confirmed its departure from the high street through a £55 million sale to Boohoo as an online platform. This means the company’s stores and 12,000 employees were not included in the deal.
The power of these notable online retailers confirms what many already expected – that online sales could signal an end, or at the very least a change, to the high street we are so familiar with. As of December 2020, 61% of consumers claimed to foresee an end of high street shopping, with many listing convenience as a key factor in their habits. This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic as stores were forced to operate on limited capacity, resulting in extended wait times for physical shoppers. The side-effects of this were felt online too, as the online proportion of all retail sales jumped from 19% to 32.8% within the first two months of lockdown.
High street stores are understandably concerned about the changing face of shopping, with many of the former key players disappearing throughout the last decade. The fall of Arcadia and Debenhams could prove to be particularly critical in signalling the end of the high street, as each often maintains large units in shopping centres and acted as a pull in encouraging individuals and families from further afield to travel to their locations due to the variety of brands which each hosted.
Smaller towns with rural outposts in particular may find that the absence of these stores leaves a gaping hole in their already dwindling town centres, one which may simply be too large for any other retailers to fill.
Concerns such as this have led to calls for reform of business rates and rent which these companies are expected to pay, as these have continued to rise steeply throughout the years whilst the stores paying such bills often struggle. Many of the retailers under threats have also faced suggestions of poor financial management throughout recent years, with Debenhams being reported as having significant and growing debt, whilst Arcadia has come under fire for the existence of huge pension scheme shortfalls of £350 million.
To some, the greatest risk to the high street is not online competition or government mandated closures of retail, but rather the behaviour of companies themselves and the landlords who rent units to retailers at unsustainable fees.
Despite this, when speaking to young people it seems all hope is not lost for the high street. Those with former and current retail experience believe that the end is not nigh for the high street, rather change is. Upon exiting lockdown life, many will crave the interaction which in-store shopping provides, and are seeking memorable experiences which cannot be felt through online or app purchases.
Young people note the stores which they feel attracted to shop in, such as Swedish retailer H&M. Their yearly collaboration with designers such as Versace and Balmain offer high end collections and quality at a high street prices. This adds an edge to in-store shopping which some stores which have fallen foul of the high street may have missed, providing a sense of luxury in the every day.
It is these small indulgences which some believe may be the saviour of the high street, as long as it is willing to adapt. After a year of living exclusively online people may well crave the normality which comes with in-store shopping, a reminder of life before unprecedented times, and a determination to rally around the stores we love in order to keep them.
If this year’s emphasis on shopping local and loving our high street continue on our road map out of lockdown, it may not be too optimistic to expect a thriving, although perhaps slightly different, high street in our town.