‘Newsflash! Latest High Street Brand To Go Into Administration!’

On a slow news day — when it doesn’t feel like the political world is imploding and Covid-19 has lulled to a suppressed peak — the latest high street brand will announce out of the blue that administrators have been called in, or foreclosure is imminent.

Quintessentially British, the modern-day average high street is a cultural symbol of the UK.

The struggling high street, pre-pandemic

Prior to the pandemic, the high street was already having issues in an age of online shopping. Take Toys “R” Us or the long and drawn out closure of Topshop. Think of the various food chains that have gradually gone out of business over the years. Add a pandemic to that and you get many brands struggling to survive. Paperchase was amongst them at one point, with an online outcry reaching a fever pitch. By 2020, 11,000 outlets permanently disappeared from the streets of the UK.

Thanks to a degree of support from the government through furlough pay and restricted evictions, the decline of the high street has been slightly held back — but only slightly. On top of the closure of 11,000 outlets, 17,500 chain store outlets have also disappeared in 2020, making this the worst year in decline on record.

Consumers lead the way

As we adapt to the so-called ‘New Normal’, the wants of the consumer are changing further still. Those start-and-stop lockdown restrictions have not helped us to adapt, either.

Small business has boomed somewhat throughout the three lockdowns, especially with ‘non-essential’ shops closed for months on end. Small business has also shown itself to be more adaptive — especially if you found yourself shielding — when it came to booking unavailable supermarket delivery slots.

Shona Louise set up Crochet By Shona on Etsy during the pandemic. She is also a freelance writer. Shona has Marfan Syndrome and found herself having to shield for more than a year, in line with government restrictions. This is what she had to say:

‘I think it needs to diversify. Even before the pandemic my high street was looking tired, it couldn’t offer me the same things I could find online, especially on platforms like Etsy. It needs to be more affordable for small businesses to move into retail spaces; it’s tiring seeing the same big chains take over!’

Is the ‘New Normal’ better?

Working From Home (WFH) looks set to stay, post-pandemic. High street shops must adapt to that, and have already begun. There’s no need to be up close and personal with shop stock any more. Even food retail is being transformed, with services such as Deliveroo and other similar companies making their mark.

Mary Portias is arguably (in-) famous for specialising in revamping high street shops, and has been somewhat successful at this. Her blueprint shows an effective way forward for the high street, without the need to rely on zero-hour contacts and other questionable practices birthed by the gig economy. Shops and associated retail may need to be on a smaller scale in order to deal with the high rent costs — but this, conveniently, fits with growing consumer demand for more environmentally-friendly business practices.

Traditional retail is so often inaccessible, particular if you are disabled. The Don’t Want Our Cash campaign is run by actress, broadcaster, campaigner and columnist Samantha Renke. There are 13.9 million people in the UK who are disabled — yet access is still an issue. This demographic has a combined total spending power of £249billion, sometimes referred to as the ‘Purple Pound’. Tapping into this neglected figure would be both prudent and prosperous for businesses.

Throwing money at a problem never resolves it. The cash value will just be swallowed up, together with the problem. The reopening of the high street was all we heard about for weeks, despite fears of a likely third wave.  But this temporary return to normality is not indicative of the future of retail. The pandemic has shown that reform is desperately needed to cater for every type of customer.

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