Retail sales may look bad, but don’t write off the high street yet

Joanna Bourke
·3-min read
<p>High street retailers have faced Covid-19 disruption</p> (PA Wire/PA Images)

High street retailers have faced Covid-19 disruption

(PA Wire/PA Images)

New figures from the Office for National Statistics show just how much the pandemic hammered the high street last year. Hearing that UK retail sales suffered their largest annual fall in history in 2020 might be enough to make some investors consider checking out of physical stores entirely.

But, despite the struggles on the high street, of which there are plenty, there will be entrepreneurs that bet on a revival for bricks and mortar retail. And the gamble could be worth one taking.

Although online shopping is convenient and has been a lifeline for many consumers, and retailers, during the virus, there are those that find it boring. Can you remember those glorious non-lockdown days last year when we could actually leave the house, walk to a town centre, and enter a real life physical shop? It feels like a long time ago. Once lockdown has lifted [again], many people will want to walk to shops, even if it is only for some more exercise after being stuck indoors for so long.

But post-lockdown, to get people inside the stores, high street tenants will have to offer something that is not so easily found online. Be it having plenty of stock you can buy there and take home immediately, the ability to try clothes on in a changing room, an expert on hand to offer advice, or an ‘experience’, such as an escape room.

Among businesses looking to bring more unconventional uses to former department stores, is Gravity Active Entertainment. The firm has signed a lease to turn a former Debenhams branch in Wandsworth into a new venue with a e-karting area, ping pong and pool tables, 16 full-length bowling lanes, and an American restaurant and cocktail bar.

That might tempt people to head out, and visit other stores on the way.

Meanwhile, at a former Debenhams site in Leicester, landlord Hammerson is looking to create rental homes. Some of the existing retail space will be transformed into smaller and more flexible space for retail and leisure brands, rather than huge shop floor space.

One person making a bet on hospitality on the high street, is Nick Hart, who in his day job as head of retail investment at JLL can more typically be found advising others on property decisions. Hart and his wife Sarah will open a café called H’artisan in Wargrave, Berkshire at the end of this month.

It will be a speciality coffee shop, have a healthy meals menu, and there will 40 cycle spaces on a rack that has been created within the cafe, to appeal to cyclists.

It will offer takeaways at first and open fully when government rules relax. Nick Hart thinks high quality products and excellent customer service will attract customers.

Another way to entice customers to physical stores is the obvious: offer something they need. Pets at Home is looking to open as many as 20 smaller stores on high streets in London. That is in response to a wave of Londoners becoming pet owners during lockdowns, as they spent more time at home.

Pets at Home knows these new puppy and kitten owners will want expert advice, access to vets, and plenty of stock. Many in the capital would rather avoid driving to a retail park, and would prefer to stay local and speak to someone in person rather than online.

WATCH: Retail sales in 2020 fall at fastest level in 23 years – ONS

The capital’s other retailers will also benefit when office workers and tourists are back in town.

In a boost for the central London retail market, there were firms that last year opened stores, or signed leases, despite the pandemic. Among them are jewellery brand Mevaris in Mayfair, Adidas on Carnaby Street and fashion firm Annie’s Ibiza in Soho.

A number of online retailers have been a lockdown ‘winners’ and will continue to be that. But, the high street could look attractive too post-Covid if it starts evolving with new concepts and giving customers more reasons to head out.

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