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  • Writer's pictureKaty Hindley

Let's get that Cat Strolling up that High Street!

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

In times of crisis, it’s easy to view the High Street in binary terms; it either exists as we know it, or it doesn’t exist at all. But What if, like Schrödinger’s cat, the High Street is both dead and alive?

The High Street has always been characterised by the co-existence of both prospering, innovative businesses and those that struggle to keep their doors open. Whilst some retailers have adapted to a new reality, those that failed to invest in the future have found themselves unable to flex their model to drive sales online. The current paradox of the high street is that while shutters remain closed for some businesses, others are thriving in cyberspace.

The existential crisis of the high street isn’t new

Every generation likes to think their challenges are unique, the high street has existed in a constant state of flux for most of its lifetime. In the 1980s businesses were confronted with the ‘Space Race’, when the only way for a business to expand was to buy physical units. In the 2000s the rise of broadband and mobile forced businesses to adapt further and, more recently, the rise of e-commerce has proved an insurmountable challenge for some retailers, with other more advanced omnichannel businesses profiting with 19.2% of purchases needing no more than a few taps on a smartphone.

But flux creates opportunities for re-imagination. The 1980s repurposing of Affleck’s Palace in Manchester is a case in point. When a couple of entrepreneurs, James and Elaine Walsh, took possession of a vacant department store and converted it into shared workspace and market retail, they reimagined the purpose of the high street, putting the customer, not the product, at the heart of the space. This change of perspective reverberated throughout the local community, kick starting the regeneration of Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

Physical Space – the final frontier?

There is currently more than 40% surplus retail space in the UK. That’s 42 million square metres or, the equivalent to 175 Westfield malls that laid empty. Over the coming months, this will inevitably grow. We have already seen online businesses Boohoo and ASOS swoop in to purchase high street heavy weights Debenhams and Arcadia Group accordingly. Both deals excluded the physical stores leaving a huge high street hole to fill.

The archaic system of inflexible leases and high rents require an urgent review. Retail business continue to be the single largest employer in the UK, making up 10% of the workforce, but new entrants to the market are rare, with unrealistic lease terms and rents suffocating smaller businesses. If the high street could adapt to meet the needs of the digital savvy consumer, post-pandemic, then perhaps this employment source could grow and help redefine local communities.

Omni-channel - Bridging the gap between online and the physical world. The best of both worlds?

To better understand how to adapt to changing consumer behaviour, we need to focus on retailers that are currently thriving and model their success to scale. High street retailers, such as JD Sports and Next, had both adopted an omni-channel approach to marketing, selling and serving customers seamlessly across physical and digital channels. As a result, they have created an integrated and cohesive customer experience, delivering significant business results. Recently Amazon acknowledged the ever-growing need for consumer experience and not just transaction and invested in their ‘clicks and mortar’ stores to give over 100 small retailers coveted presence on the high street.

The key is for businesses to blend an online and offline approach. Online offers customers unprecedented range, allowing them to research and review their purchases with ease and convenience. Bricks and mortar offer brands a valuable place on the high street, a fulfilment role for click and collect, and, most importantly, the ability for customers to experience the product and service first-hand. The key is for businesses to invest in technology the right way.

Experience is everything

The experience economy has grown exponentially in recent years, driven by millennials who would rather spend their income on a shareable experience. A Harris Group report found that 72% of 24- to 28-year-olds would prefer to invest in leisure, arts, culture and dining on the high street rather than a one-off purchase. Experiences are the expectation du jour.

Retailers today have a unique opportunity to respond to this shift. To survive they must re-shape, re-think and re-imagine how their space can be utilised. If high street stores adapt their spaces to provide experiences as well as purchases, they will not only increase their sales but also diversify their customer base by expanding their online reach through social media sharing.

With ‘shops’ now converted to real-time experience platforms; marketing must follow suit. Retailers need to engage across multiple channels, informing consumers of where and when things are happening and what shareable moments they can expect. This will drive essential footfall and keep things fresh.

The rise and rise of the Pop-Up

As the traditional physical retail model is under review, there’s a renewed focus for brands to experiment and collaborate in pop-up spaces. Whether a day-long takeover or something more long term, these flexible, multi-use spaces offer brands the advantage of affordable rents, a place to generate buzz and to tap into the FOMO culture of today.

Roger Wade, CEO & Founder of BOXPARK, created the world’s first pop-up dining and shopping destination housed in shipping containers in Shoreditch in 2011, later expanding to Croydon and Wembley, creating food, culture, and social hubs to serve local communities. Their investment into this model, means that despite these adverse times, they remain confident in their plans to expand over the next 5 to 10 years into BoxHall and BoxOffice.

Wade says, “I don’t buy into the idea of the ‘death of the high street’ and I don’t believe that the future is all online shopping either. I believe that physical retail will never die out, it will simply keep evolving to survive. In fact, independent retailers have been a crucial element in the survival of Britain’s high streets - in a world where you can now buy everything online from large chain stores, independent retailers fill in the gaps by offering unique, artisan products and a more personalised experience for consumers”

Online payment provider Klarna set up a pop-up in Covent Garden to show retailers how using experiential

features in a store created closer engagement with customers. Brands including ASOS and Swoon, which had previously only been available online, joined forces with exclusive DJs and stylists to attract swathes of eager consumers. Lego adopted a similar model when it created an Art Gallery pop-up in London with 30-minute reservable slots that drove demand via bookable retail en masse. Retail experts believe this is the way forward.


There is no denying that the high street is going through a painful transformation, but history tells us it will

survive, just not as we know it.

Which businesses thrive in this new climate will be dependent on each retailer’s ability both to adapt to consumer behaviour and to invest in technology for optimum interaction both online and offline.

While physical retail has the opportunity to become an ‘experience platform’ for shoppers to drive deeper engagement and social status, bookable retail will increase the value exchange between shoppers and brands, with real-time marketing signposting information at each location. By using pop-ups and collaborations, online brands can further expand by accessing valuable face-to-face interaction with their products and services in a way that wasn’t possible before and breathe new life into the high street.

Whilst great change can cause immense hardship, it can also create great hope for what the future could hold and a renewed sense of purpose.

As the passionate high street advocate Roger Wade concludes, “If we don’t have places where people can come together, what sort of future town centres do we really have? High streets serve as the heart of local communities and it is a place that people depend on for their social lives, employment and livelihoods - we must do everything we can to save it.

Let’s get that cat strolling up that High Street!



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