What will the end of lockdown spell for the high street?
13th July 2020
Over the last few months, Covid-19 has had unparalleled effects on nearly all aspects of how we carry out our lives. Day-to-day routines have been upended, resulting in new emerging patterns of how we work, occupy public space, and live in our homes. There is no doubt that the pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the once thriving UK retail and hospitality sector, and the daily news of stores closing and of jobs lost makes for sobering reading.
While admitting they cannot save every business and every job, the government’s costly initiatives to stimulate these sectors are evolving and expanding at an equally fast pace. Our thoughts set out here can only represent a snapshot in time in this rapidly changing new world, however there are a number of key themes that are emerging; and our response to them—be it as local authorities, developers, designers and consumers—will shape our towns and cities for generations to come.
Firstly while many aspects of life have moved online, in my own neighbourhood I have seen somewhat of the opposite effect: a noticeable shift to people using the local spaces and shops on their doorsteps more than ever. With online food delivery slots saturated and large chain shops requiring hour-long queues, many are resorting to small high street and town centre shops, in contrast to the previously dominant narrative that local shopping has faded into obscurity.
In fact it is increasingly becoming clear that it is the town centre shops that are neither local nor destination retail that offer an experience that online can’t provide, which will suffer the most. It is likely to be a reduction in this middle ground of retail that will leave voids in our towns and shopping centres. Local retailers, and particularly those with a strong brand, have the opportunity of increasing their market share.
Further, there is no doubt that the pandemic will increase vacancy within shopping centres and high streets, where the need to develop alternative uses within these centres has even greater priority, so high streets can retain their vitality. To convert empty retail units into much needed residential may sound like a sensible approach; however, pepper-potting residential in amongst retail units may deaden our high streets. We need to condense our retail—into better, efficient retail in certain areas and allocating others for residential—and we must work collaboratively with local authorities, so that town centres can be viewed holistically. This is also the time to focus on bringing in other uses into town centres—public space, healthcare, education and community uses that we all want.
Finally, while we take our first tentative steps out of lockdown, there is still a clear reticence towards shopping, eating or drinking in confined spaces. Certainly when lockdown ends completely and the virus is no longer a threat, there will be a much more significant increase in social-based activities, including the use of retail, cafes, and bars; but for now, people will rightly approach social-centric activities with trepidation, largely in response to the design of the spaces that house these amenities. Safe and desirable design features echo already existing trends in retail design, particularly hinging on public space and social amenities—these are critical to reinventing the retail landscape.
I have seen public space become increasingly important for retail, replacing large department stores as the anchors of new retail development. This, coupled with experiential retail, can enrich and intensify user experiences by providing something that can't be recreated online. These design elements are critical as life moves back outside, defining places that allow social interaction while feeling open, unconfined, and safe. The public’s return to the high street also goes hand-in-hand with the desire to use less public transport, with a shift to walking and cycling further supporting local town centres.
While some of this effect may be temporary, there will likely be long-term shifts accelerated by Covid. On the high street and in town centres, homogeneity will continue to decline, while mixed-use spaces that integrate small and medium shops with cafes, restaurants and public spaces will become increasing more prevalent.
The effects of Covid also reinforce the need to design flexibly, allowing adaptation to the way we use our spaces. Without these adaptations, some retailers and types of retail inevitably will not survive, in some cases leaving the retail landscape as even more of a “survival of the fittest,” which we are already witnessing.
There will also be regional discrepancies in how the high street bounces back, with local economies responding differentially based on unfolding patterns of factors such as wider unemployment and the demise of other industries such as manufacturing. Now more than ever, strength of brand will be a make-or-break characteristic for retailers, as local shops and eateries become the preference, and those with outdoor space more preferential still.