How to fall in love with your local high street

“20 years from now, as a society, do we want to look back and wish we had saved our main streets and not missed our window of opportunity?”

Many of us will fondly remember the main streets of decades ago with their vibrant supportive communities and in times of crisis we need our communities, it is not too late but we must work together to save our main streets.”

Dr. Sarah Montano, Birmingham Business School, says that 20 years from now, as a society, do we want to look back and wish we had saved our main streets and not missed our window of opportunity?

During the pandemic, one of the key changes in the retail sector was consumers shopping local again due to travel restrictions, and in doing so, rediscovering their local shopping areas.

Current data from the ONS shows that consumers have reduced their spending online, with online sales now accounting for 25.3% of total retail sales, from a pandemic high of 37.8% in January 2021. This illustrates that consumers have been eager to return to physical stores. Many consumers are also looking for a sustainable way to shop at local independent retail stores, thrift and charity shops.

We take a broad interpretation of ‘local’ to reflect the diversity of cities and locations: local can mean your high street, high street, town center or, indeed, the local parade of shops on your estate. Birmingham itself has a thriving independent retail sector with stores such as Loki, Miss Macaroon, On The Bread Line, The Clean Kilo and The Liquor Store. There is even a campaign called Independents Day UK (July 2-3, 2022) which aims to support and promote independent retail.

How do we ensure the continued success of our main streets? For our local business areas to survive, we will need to think collectively and work together as consumers, retailers, local councils and national governments; it can also mean different solutions for different areas. In his bid for leadership this summer, Rishi Sunak pledged to save the main street and recognized the importance of main streets to local communities.

Some ideas we can consider are, first of all, empty stores don’t look welcoming in any area, so what could we have instead? Rents, local taxes and refurbishment costs are expensive, so discounts and start-up support would attract innovators and entrepreneurs to the local area. The vast majority of our biggest brands started small many years ago, but where is the next M&S, Tesco or Superdry? Supporting small businesses would attract new consumers and make empty spaces look vibrant.

Second, it’s not just about retail. Local areas are about communities and allow people to meet and socialize. We need to think about making sure that local areas offer a mix of services, cafes and community spaces to allow people to come together. We often talk about Third Places or places where people can meet and hang out and become a home away from home; excellent examples of these are often seen on TV shows like Friends, Coronation Street. With the continued rise in home working, people may be looking for spaces where they can work close to home and socialize after work. We can think in terms of mixed-use spaces, where there can be a commercial element, eating/drinking options, and expand that to include community spaces like exhibits by local artists, etc. By creating an experience, consumers are more likely to visit the event.

Third, how to attract young consumers? Newport has sought to appeal to younger consumers by offering mixed-use space and Europe’s largest indoor market regeneration with a mix of street food, independent retail and workspaces. Being ‘Instagrammable’ is a key trend right now and ensuring local retailers and service offerings are thinking about social media opportunities, then consumers will be eager to try and share on social media. We must keep in mind that the cost of living crisis often disproportionately affects young consumers and the vast majority of consumers are concerned. So we need to consider how people can still visit the local area but places are not expensive. Once again, we come back to the issue of mixed-use spaces, for example, allowing local community groups to take over the spaces.

Fourth, as consumers work more from home, national retailers that would normally be in city centers are considering opening outlets in local areas; for example, Pret a Manger is considering opening more stores in suburban areas. John Lewis is considering opening ‘shops-in-shops’ or mini John Lewis’ in Waitrose. Well-known brands will draw consumers to a local area and offer a convenient shopping experience.

20 years from now, as a society, do we want to look back and wish we had saved our main streets and not missed our window of opportunity? Many of us will fondly remember the main streets of decades ago with their vibrant supportive communities and in times of crisis we need our communities, it is not too late but we must work together to save our main streets.

We owe it to ourselves as consumers, our communities, society and our future to fall in love again and stay in love with our local high street.


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