An Assessment of the Situation
You may have noticed the ever-increasing closure of High Street shops and subsequent loss of jobs. This has led some to declare that the High Street is ‘beyond help’ or, as some would prefer, that it is well and truly dead. On the contrary, I invite you to consider another, perhaps more optimistic proposal. The High Street is not dead, although it has suffered a chain of unfortunate and hard-hitting events. We have not so much witnessed the death of the High Street as ‘High Street Armageddon’.
Just like its counterpart operating on a wider scale, ‘High Street Armageddon’ may seem like an end-of-all scenario. But this is not necessarily true. In all good apocalyptic tales, there are at least a small group of survivors, struggling, but not quite dead. They subsequently thrive because of their ability to adapt to such harsh conditions. It follows that, despite how the downfall of retailers from Woolworths onwards may invoke pessimism, some High Street retailers are equally capable of thriving, even if they are but few in number.
Just What We Need?
Whilst it is clear that the effects of this have been devastating for some, there is an argument that, overall, given the previous state of affairs, ‘High Street Armageddon’ has become a necessary event with some positive consequences.
One could compare it to a phoenix or Doctor Who. Without this Armageddon, eventually, circumstances would have become so dire for retailers that there would be nothing left but a shell of what they once were. Something must break for new progression to occur. The original phoenix must die for a new one to be born. The High Street must regenerate into something more adaptable and appealing.
This progression allows a positive outcome in that old retailers, like BHS and Toys-R-Us, going into administration makes room for new, up-and-coming, meritocratic businesses. It removes barriers-to-entry and encourages competition, something that is undoubtedly beneficial to society.
Who is the Enemy?
In every apocalyptic tale, there is an enemy or, to put it better, a threat. This is no different.
The rise of online shopping, with sites such as ASOS and Amazon, has been very prominent. This, alongside the success of home delivery services for takeaways and supermarket shopping, poses substantial competition for high street retailers.
But, a recent survey has shown that it is predominantly younger people who regularly use the internet. 99% of all adults aged 16 to 34 years were described as recent internet users in 2018, compared with only 44% of adults aged 74 years over. Clearly, there is still a substantial section of consumers, undominated by the appeal of internet shopping, who are potential key targets for high street retailers.
However, for some, this very apparent online enemy is not the only threat to business. Take, for example, the Broadmarsh Centre in Nottingham. Now seemingly derelict to many, it not only repels business from itself, but also creates difficulty for retailers surrounding it. Shops, such as Paperchase and Peters on Low Pavement, situated very much in the shadow of Broadmarsh, have had a harder time since its decline than the less remote Waterstones and Cath Kidston on nearby Bridlesmith Gate.
Therefore, it should be recognised that it is not all about expanding and re-branding. There is much to be said for other methods, like relocation, even if that relocation is merely moving to the next street over.
A Plan for Survival
Those who wish to survive need not necessarily have a prominent online presence, although some retailers, like Next, have had more substantial online success. Most of all, successful retailers must keep their fingers on the pulse of what customers want and, for some, this must mean adaptation.
Survival in an apocalypse is all about adjusting to shifting conditions, so that you may gain the essentials for survival. In this case, the essentials in question are business and profit.
There is no doubt that the traditional or simple aspects of some shops or businesses have been their saving grace. For example, whilst this is by no means always the case, some charity shops and independent businesses, with their unique appeal, are well-placed for survival. Moreover, specialist stores, like Games Workshop, have reported record profits and revenues.
So, the ability to thrive in these conditions is not just about minimal adaptation. There is a need to harness a particular kind of pull which will draw the consumer out of the world of internet shopping and back onto the High Street.
When we look at examples of retailers that have done this successfully, their approaches are often varied, but have the common advantage of appeal. For example, brands such as JD Sports, Hotel Chocolat and John Lewis, represent an offering of prestigious products that are perceived as being exclusive. On the other hand, discount-heavy Primark, whilst not possessing a strong online offering, continues to be a clear success.
Additionally, stores like the Disney Store and Lush take a different approach, in that they offer a unique and emotive shopping experience, remain similarly successful.
There is a substantially varied scope for retailers to tap into the wants and needs of consumers and to truly blossom as a result.
Challenges for High Street stores are very much ongoing. With Friday’s events of the House of Fraser store chain going into administration and being subsequently bought by Mike Ashley, we are yet to see if the retailer will be able to adapt to become a stronger presence on the high street, or if it will be another casualty.
Although the Sports Direct CEO is a controversial figure, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to think up any effective or unique ideas to ensure survival in these tough times.
House of Fraser is traditionally viewed as forming part of the blockade of high-end high street shops. Indeed, many locals of Glasgow, the setting of House of Fraser’s first store, see it as a key name in tasteful high street shopping. The real challenge for Ashley will be seeking a good balance through respecting House of Fraser’s more upmarket reputation, whilst also incorporating elements of his successful company to increase profits.
The High Street has been hit hard and this has had a detrimental effect on many retailers, leading to a compression in profits, like squeezing the juice out of an orange. Our next move should not be to proclaim that this is the ‘death of the high street’, but to remember that the juice of an orange, if put to good use, can taste just as sweet as the fruit itself.