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Rebirth of The High Street: An Unintended Consequence of COVID-19?

There are a number of contradictions to the headlines we’ve seen in recent years around in-store shopping. One moment, we’re hearing about the “death of the high street” caused by online shopping and the next we’re told that 80 percent of retail sales still take place in-store. The high street is far from dead, but it is undoubtedly changing. And the retail shutdown in response to the COVID-19 crisis – both here in the U.K. and around the world – brings this into sharp focus.

I live in a small rural town in the south of England. It’s a typical town with many high street premises either vacant or occupied by charity shops, coffee shops, pound shops and betting shops. Though I have no issue with any of these specifically, their domination leaves little else. Various local independent shops have sprung up, but most don’t thrive, and most are gone within a year.

But I, and many like me, are the cause of the problem. I buy more from Amazon and the like than I care to remember, often overlooking the local high street and those local entrepreneurs who bring variety and inspiration to the community. They need customers like me.

Are local initiatives enough?

Several regional programs have attempted to support the high street in the past. Bristol Pounds encouraged local spending with its own currency, keeping trade within the city and stimulating local economic growth. Though there were signs of some success, the cost of administering it contributed to its demise. Changes in business rates have also been designed to support the high street – success has been limited here too.

But ultimately, what you get on your high street is what you deserve – what you demand and support. Artificial encouragements, like Bristol Pounds, are not long-term viable solutions. Evolving social attitudes towards your local high street and your community, and subsequent behavior, is the answer. If you visit your high street, spend there and support your local shops – particularly those independents – then those establishments will be there for you.

The Co-op’s Membership program provides a good example of harnessing the renewed focus on community: the symbiotic relationship between a retailer at the heart of the community and the people who are the community. A portion of member spend in local stores is redistributed to members for discounted shopping in the future and to local causes. The member community gets to decide what those causes are, and The Co-op delivered £17 million to over 4,000 local causes in 2019.

Could COVID-19 reinvigorate the high street?

The COVID-19 crisis is keeping us away from our high streets and local retailers right now, while at the same time causing many people to re-think their relationship with their local community. We’ve all seen media coverage of the severe impact that trading restrictions are having on our local businesses and economy, while at the same time some pureplay online businesses are thriving.

When the current restrictions ease and some degree of normality returns, there’s likely to be a pent-up desire to shop and spend. Combined with a more community-minded spirit, which is arising as we support one another in our local collaborative fights against the pandemic, a renewed appreciation of our local high streets may also emerge.

A number of my local restaurants have quickly pivoted their businesses to serve customers outside of their premises and tailors have gone from making dresses to making and distributing face masks. We really are all in this together. The engagement of local high street businesses with the community could drive lasting local loyalty – and an appreciation for the high street that many may have previously taken for granted.

Shopping malls require marquee anchor tenants like John Lewis to guarantee footfall, which then attracts other retailers to take up rental space. It’s the same principle for high streets; if people shop more on their doorstep, the snowball effect will lead to more and better shops being there – a mixture of brand names and independents feeding customers to each other.

Necessity is the mother of (retail) re-invention

It might be true that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, but people can have surprisingly short memories. For high street retailers to capitalize on the opportunity and secure long-term loyalty, they’ll need to rethink how they serve their customers.

To some extent this is already happening; the COVID-19 crisis has forced many small independents to find ways to start selling online – and quickly. Digital transformation isn’t an abstract concept here, it’s now something to be done within days or weeks to ensure businesses can keep trading. But some of these stop-gap measures could – and should – become part of a more permanent shift. In essence, some businesses have undergone omni-channel transformation in fast-forward mode, whether it’s bookshops opening static websites with orders placed via email and packages hand-delivered, local restaurants supplying ready-made meals to the community supermarket or the local bike shop enabling a basic form of click-and-collect to facilitate home repairs. Long term, these businesses should consider how to implement technology and solutions (whether it’s inventory management, payments or fraud prevention) that support these new models.

Local businesses that continue to trade in difficult circumstances, often selflessly, need to remind customers that they were there for them and all need to foster a “shop locally” community spirit, as even some larger brands like The Co-op have done. Perhaps this is the time for even the small independents on the high street to look at better use of eCommerce – buy-online-pick-up-curbside and delivery-from-store might be new omni-channel customer journeys, born out of a pandemic, but becoming part of local shopping aided by new found community spirit.

It just might be that because of COVID-19, reports of the death of the high street may have been greatly exaggerated.

Today’s payments have the unique power to transform the shopping experience. Register for this InternetRetailing webinar on May 19 with Paul Fletcher, solutions specialist from The Co-operative Group and Andrew Marshman, head of business development from ACI: “Transform Your Retail Payments with Insights from Co-op”

Contributing Author

Andrew has worked in the payments industry for more than 25 years, during which time assignments have taken him from India to Iran, London to Libya and Johannesburg to Jakarta. He formerly led ACI’s sales to large retailers in Europe. Andrew’s focus was helping merchants to embrace the opportunity to serve customers in their omnichannel buying journeys securely and efficiently – while maximizing sales and minimizing costs. Whilst running marathons, Andrew has time to contemplate the world of payments, which helps him forget the pain.