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  • Writer's pictureDominic Barker

What Next For The High Street?

Repurposing the High Street Post Covid-19

The “death” of the high street has been well publicised and predicted in the UK for some time now so the timing of the Covid pandemic could not have been worse for retailers. City centres and regional town high streets alike have been hard hit hard by the pressure on bricks and mortar retail.

Unfortunately, the true impact of the Covid-19 pandemic won’t be revealed until high street shops are finally allowed to open again and we see the gaps that are left.

So, what next for the town high street post Covid-19?

Well, firstly, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. One thing that the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have showed us is that “where there’s a will there’s most definitely a way” and this never say die spirit has been widely demonstrated in the retail sector.

Pubs repurposing as local shops, restaurants and cafes offering contactless deliveries and take-aways, bricks and mortar clothing outlets operating as purely online stores – the list goes on of ingenious ways retailers have managed to thrive during these tough times.

However, there are equal numbers of cases of stores that won’t, unfortunately, make it through to the other side, leaving big gaps in every high street up and down the country. Arguably it’s a case of survival of the fittest and the pandemic has merely accelerated the inevitable - the weakest links that are ill equipped for long term survival will fall by the wayside as the face of the traditional high street changes forever.

A snapshot view of my local high street proves a point – there are seven (yes, seven) high end women’s fashion outlets, all doing very nicely thank you up until mid March of last year. Since then three have, in every sense of the phrase, shut up shop – shop windows empty, standard Covid-19 sign forlornly hanging in the window and most telling of all, website and social media on hold with no new content published since the start of the pandemic.

The other four however have really rolled up their sleeves and got on with it – constantly refreshing actual shop window, highly active on social media and now all have websites that are full on e-commerce sites and are doing a roaring trade as we start to contemplate coming out of the other side of this. Hats off to the four of you, great examples of “where there’s a will there’s a way”.

So what next for these “gaps” (probably at least three my high street), what are the options open to retail landlords who can’t simply walk away?

Well one thing is for (hopefully) sure, the high street will not go away, it may well look very different but it won’t go away. Landlords must look for alternative uses for high street premises, working with local councils to secure for flexible usage agreements and being more creative with their ideas.

And this is the opportunity – the opportunity to repurpose high street premises away from their traditional use, landlords not lurching from one doomed retail or food outlet to another but seeking out use for their property with potential longevity and growth.

After more than 10 months of working from home, the thought for many of going back to the daily commute holds no joy whatsoever. Businesses have adapted very quickly to remote, virtual working, still functioning well but with out the physical proximity they have been used to for so long. For some, although not all, this is the way forward, the new way of working that gives us the flexibility and additional time we have come to take for granted during the pandemic– to quote an overused phrase – the new normal.

Many of us have realised that while Starbucks and Costa are fine as a temporary home for your business during the pandemic, they do have their limitations. What if there was a longer term, designed for purpose option on your local high street (and therefore on your doorstep)? What if you didn’t have to commute to your nearest city to find high quality shared workspace for your SME? What if the space that used to hold that clothes shop was redesigned to hold half a dozen desks available to rent on a flexible basis?

What if the gaps on your local high street weren’t filled with another charity shop but were repurposed to become the new home for an ambitious locally based start up that didn’t feel the need to take space in Shoreditch and was used to working much closer to home?

The huge challenges facing the high street and the bricks and mortar retail sector are not going to go away, the problems for landlords will only get worse so maybe it’s time to find a Plan B?

A high street with a much higher mixed usage ratio than we are used to brings with it a number of peripheral benefits:

- A daily influx of a new workforce from surrounding areas

- Only open traditional “office hours” so doesn’t disturb residents in above retail accommodation

- Influx of a daily workforce with requirements for food, drink, office supplies, hair, beauty, exercise etc that helps local outlets

- Increased demand for local hospitality outlets from business’ workforce

There’s no doubt that 2021 will see a drastic change in the shape and usage of our high streets, both city and town – there will be a lot of empty shops that’s for sure but this, as I’ve outlined, is where the opportunity lies.

As Tim Vallance, head of investor services and retail chairman at real estate service giant JLL says “There are going to be a lot of empty shops. But this really isn’t a disaster. It’s about accepting that to an extent; we need to let evolution do its work. We just need some clever people to think about how to use those spaces.”

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