Guest Slot – Analysis Insider – Sarah Wilson

For around seven years the high street has been thought of as doomed, yet recent evidence suggests that this is not the case; the high street is changing, and our town centres may be able to compete once more with out-of-town developments and online competition.

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Reasons to return to the high street

Though many high streets across the UK are still fighting to prosper, it looks like they have turned the corner and are no longer heading for extinction. Green shoots have appeared as vacancy rates have finally declined. In December they fell to less than 14% for the first time in years – off their peak of 14.6%, reached in 2010.

Despite this turning point, it is clear that we are not turning back time to identikit, boring high streets. Instead, there has been a re-generation of the space, leading to modern high streets that are more interesting than those that could be found before the 2007/8 crash, and the rise of the internet. In this way, a value-led revival is leading to a new found vibrancy in town centres.

It is certainly a welcome move from the demise we have seen in recent years, when vacancy rates appeared to be rising at an unstoppable pace, following thousands of store closures including former high street heavyweights such as Woolworths, Comet, Jessops, Clinton Cards, Game, and JJB to name but a few.

The new high streets are not filled with new rapidly expanding chains. Yes, there are Zara and Primark stores opening, along with plenty of Poundland outlets and numerous betting shops! But local and niche operators have also been opening their town centre doors.

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It’s getting easier

This rise in small retailers is due in part to the availability of property, and has also been helped by the high degree of pressure put on landlords and local councils to get the – high – rent situation sorted in their areas, and the extra encouragement given to the councils to revitalise town centres.

Taking the redevelopment further, local councils around the country have arranged (or at least considered) subsidised buses, free parking and the organising of events in town centres. Some have even provided grants to new shop owners to get them up and running. Another factor in the new town centre landscape has been the recent relaxed planning, with more change-of-use applications being granted.

Previously, town centre decisions were seemingly made by committee, and this produced the predictable result of homogenous high streets. The new high street, filled with mixed operators, has been allowed to develop as the key stakeholders in many towns are now reading from separate hymn sheets.

This laissez- faire attitude has contributed to the changing shape of the typical high street in many positive ways; the high streets of the UK are no longer indistinguishable, they’re local. London’s Muswell Hill is a great example of this phenomenon; everything is there for shoppers and much of it is supplied by local retailers. It’s the same in Bath where you can shop across the spectrum without even going into a single chain store.

Despite the emergence of new names on the high street, well known high street stalwarts have survived and thrived thanks to innovation, and the evolution of their models. Integration solutions such as Click & Collect are one such example of high street innovation, and this has been a great success for Halfords, where it accounts for as much as 80% of online sales.

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Halfords: Click & Collect having big effect

These companies are now finding that their stores are not an Achilles Heel in the fight against the expansion of the market-share-grabbing internet. Rather, they have become a key component in the multi-channel model which is most appreciated by shoppers.

To access this new kind of retailing, companies have to embrace all available channels to them and to ensure that their store is not a one dimensional bore, but a theatrical retail opportunity.

The result of this near-revolution? Shoppers are now enjoying an enhanced experience on a growing number of the UK’s high streets that were once thought to be doomed. This is the beginning of an exciting turnaround, not only from the recent dark years, but also from the supposedly ‘good old’ (pre-internet) days.

Sponsored column by Sarah Wilson, retail specialist at consultancy Egremont Group