Will the post-Covid high street survive?

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Even before lockdown, the high street was in a precarious position. 2019’s Christmas sales had reportedly been the worst in years and non-essential shopping chains were badly hit by February’s storms and floods. On top of rent prices rising and the ever-increasing monopoly that Amazon holds over a sprawling mix of industries and niches, this has contributed to the 10% fall in shopper numbers over the last seven years.

And then lockdown hit, forcing retail outlets to close. Consumers swiftly moved to online shopping, whether from the all-provider Amazon or businesses that already had well-established delivery operations in place. The ease, the social-distanced safety and the convenience of clicking a button and seeing the item you want appear on your doorstep a few days later have shifted the way people shop.

Chains have either been forced to consider closing some of their stores or closing altogether, like in the case of Oasis, Warehouse and Cath Kidston. When non-essential retail reopened again on the 15th June, tight restrictions were put in place, further discouraging a seamless return to pre-Covid shopping – for the right reasons, of course. Kurt Geiger’s policy ensured that shoes tried on by customers are quarantined for 24 hours before another person can also try them on. In Nike, Adidas and H&M, you can’t try things on at all and returns are separated from other stock for 72 hours to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. And of course, the number of shoppers allowed into stores at any one time is also being monitored and limited, including one-way systems guiding customers around the shop floor. With no changing rooms and potentially long queues outside, will anyone bother at all?

On the first day that shops reopened, footfall was 38.8% higher than the previous week, but, as you might expect, the numbers were far lower than this time last year.

Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, commented that “footfall has risen by more than we anticipated, but it was certainly helped by the weather, which made queuing a more pleasurable experience.” In Manchester, it seemed that shoppers didn’t mind queuing. Lines outside Primark, TK Maxx and Foot Locker were a one-hour long wait. But will this enthusiasm last?

Elsewhere in Europe, where shops opened earlier and footfall is recovering gradually, evidence suggests that consumers have on average spent more, but it is uncertain whether this will continue. Will shoppers go the extra mile just to view whatever they’re after in person, without even touching it? Or is online shopping the future? Like the retailer Laura Ashley, which shut all 70 of its stores and is now solely trading online, it seems like moving your goods online will become the harsh reality for many businesses. It’s perhaps likely that, as with most things during this pandemic, success will be varied and unpredictable. But one thing is certain: high street stores will have to adapt in some form or another to survive.

Francesca Lister-Fell

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