The Silent High Street – has COVID-19 broken our high streets?

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In the current economic climate with a backdrop of Covid-19, lots of questions are being asked about the future of our high streets as we start to ease through the lockdown. Paul Latimer – the owner of Latimer Appleby – latimerappleby.com – a market research company – takes a look at the high street and what the future holds for Britain’s town centres and their main shopping streets.

We live on the edge of Uckfield, a small town in East Sussex. We have lived here for more than 20 years. The town itself isn’t officially a ‘market’ town but it was big enough at one time to have a Woolworths store, which, by some definitions back in the 1970s, qualified it to be called a town, rather than just a large village.

Today, the main high street which runs north-south has the bulk of the retail offer, like so many other high streets across the UK. At the bottom end of the high street, there is an industrial estate containing various retail units that extend westward from the high street, like a backward capital ‘L’. This area is a part-retail park and part-industrial estate, with the likes of Halfords and a drive-thru McDonald’s, plus tile retailers, plumber’s merchants and garage repair shops, as well as other home improvement outlets. But it is certainly more of the industrial estate than a retail park and something that has become the norm for most small towns across the UK.

The biggest shop in town is Tesco, situated slightly away from the high street, while on the high street itself we have a Waitrose, WH Smith (occupying the former home of Woolworths), Boots, Superdrug and Peacocks. Otherwise, the largest occupiers are probably the public library and a popular independent cinema.

Today, like so many other high streets, there is evident change and an eery business silence. I took a walk along the length of the high street to record exactly who was there, in order to determine what the future holds for towns like Uckfield. Although Uckfield is certainly not a proxy for the whole of the UK, it certainly represents what so many other small towns will be going through and might look like post-Covid-19.

Here are the fast facts:

  • Unit numbers creating the high street as we knew it – the facts: 167 units directly on the high street or set back inside courts, most being retail but with some voids and residential re-purposing happening already. Note that these are units and vary by size.
  • The most common types of unit/retail occupiers were: Hairdressers, barbers or nail bars (11% of units); Cafés and restaurants (8%); Takeaways. including fish and chip shops and bakeries (8%); Charity shops (7%); and Estate agents or similar property businesses (6%). These accounted for around 40% of all occupiers.
  • Unoccupied spaces: Empty units accounted for 5% of all space.
  • Banks and building societies made up 3% and Clothing retailers another 3%, but otherwise, no other category made up more than 2% of all units.
  • Those smaller categories included: Betting shops, Bookshops, card shops and stationers, Jewellers, Kitchen designers, Newsagents, Phone accessory shops, Pet shops as well as Grocery and other Food shops including off licences, among many more shop types.

Working in the new norm

So, what does this tell us? Well, as we potentially head into an extended period of social distancing how can those premises re-configure to the new norm and accommodate all social distancing requirements and who will have to just close up ‘shop’?

The biggest challenge is for those retailers who need to interact closely with their customers. The most obvious example being the hair salons and barbers’ shops. They account for 11% of all occupants, but add in the dentist, the tattooist, a wedding shop, the fancy dress hire shop, various opticians plus miscellaneous otherstake us to 19%. So almost one-fifth of units. Without some clever lateral thinking it might be very difficult for those retailers to operate anything close to normal, e.g. getting your eyes tested from someone positioned two metres from you? Long-distance tattoos? So just how viable will these shops be?

Charity shops are one area that could potentially go online more. But how will all those odds and ends and assorted bric-a-brac that they receive each day be photographed by charity shops to be posted online? And thinking of the charity retailer shopper will they be the internet savvy user? Probably not so that means charity retailers will have to restrict the number of users in their shops which goes against the browsing culture of charity shops.

Takeaways probably have a clearer adaptation path but even so queuing may be problematical in the winter in the rain, and this is likely to put people off to some extent, but those problems seem minor in comparison to cafés and restaurants. With the latter it has been suggested that tables will need to been spaced further apart in order to observe social distancing, and whilst this may be practical the economics may just not stack up for them.

Last word

It seems that the traditional high street could become a traffic light category of imminent decisions that will need to be made and adopted in the age of the new ‘norm’ and the creation of the new high street seems not far away.

  • A ‘Greenlight‘: for all those business types who were either already adapting to lockdown and social-distancing, or who could make the changes relatively easily do so. (e.g. Food shops, Health and beauty, Takeaways etc).
  • An ‘Amber light’:  for those businesses that could potentially adapt their approach but with some different degrees of difficulty. For some, putting into place adaptations that the ‘green light group’ has already achieved. For others it might be quite difficult but a range of practical solutions to adapt their business approach for customers will have to be put into place to ensure the business venture continues.  How profitable such solution strategies will remain to be seen.
  • A ‘Redlight’: for those shops and occupants where it would be either very difficult or almost impossible for them to follow social-distancing such as opticians, barbers, nail bars, tattooists, gyms and yoga studios.

The bad news is, only 17% of occupants might be classified as ‘green’, with the ability to evolve relatively easily to a new normal of trading and existence.  More than half (59%) could be classified as being ‘amber’ where measures to adapt their spaces or business models will have varying degrees of difficulties to adapt and then trade. Changes might include more pre-booking of appointments, or more online solutions to control the flow of people in, around and out of each unit.

However, the ‘Red light group’ could be around one-fifth (19%) of occupants which is bad news for the high street. Here the level of personal interaction is such that it is difficult to see exactly how they will be able to adapt unless social-distancing rules are completely abolished or alternatively we get used to seeing staff in full PPE. (Note: the missing 5% here is accounted for by existing voids).

We should never write off the ingenuity of businesspeople facing a challenge. This quick analysis does, however, suggest that without some radical thinking we could be seeing a fifth of businesses on our sample high street disappear. And, of course, if those identified in our largest amber group fail to adapt, or if only two-thirds of them do so effectively then we could be looking at having to say goodbye to another 20% of retailer occupants.

Thankfully the government is now putting in place the support for a wide range of businesses which will definitely help. We will all just need to adapt to the new way of life, even if that means fewer people in shops at the same time, more queueing and perhaps even a slower pace of life.  There are even some suggestions that the future may actually be brighter for the local high street, with more localised shopping behaviours emerging as people shun larger crowds in the bigger cities and shopping schemes.