As the retail landscape shifts before our eyes, we’ve seen the disappearance of some major brand names from our high streets in recent years. Toys R Us? Gone. BHS? Gone. And even high street stalwart Debenhams has been forced to close many branches.
And that was before the sucker punch that has been the impact of COVID-19 and a three-month shutdown of non-essential high-street stores.
In the past three months, the coronavirus crisis has meant the permanent shuttering of Cath Kidston, Oasis Warehouse and Monsoon Accessorize stores.
So what will the embattled high street, afflicted with the twin challenges of rising rents and dwindling footfall – not to mention the migration to online shopping – look like in a post-COVID landscape?
The retail industry is desperately hoping that pent-up demand from shoppers eager to spend their money will help mitigate the impact of the shutdown. Signs like four-hour queues outside branches of Ikea in early June, or the reports of large queues for entry into Sports Direct and Primark branches on 15th June certainly seem encouraging.
But the truth is that footfall is simply unlikely to return in a rush, with health fears likely to keep some shoppers away, and the effect of social distancing limiting the practical footfall into many shops.
Instead, shoppers are accelerating their move online. Research from Retail Economics suggests that almost half of shoppers bought items online for the first time during the pandemic… and much of that shopping behaviour is likely to stick.
Fashion looks like being particularly hard hit. Overall demand dropped almost ten per cent in May, despite online fashion sales jumping by a third according to IMRG Capgemini’s Online Retail Index. The situation is sufficiently bleak that some fashion retailers reckon sales won’t fully recover until the tail end of 2021.
Retailers are therefore being extremely cautious about reopening. According to Paul Martin of KPMG, many retailers “will be looking to open around a third of their estates now, another third in the run-up to Christmas and then hold back the final third and make a call after Christmas. Some may never open that last third again.”
But there is some good news: local high streets seem more resilient. While footfall in city centres plummeted by 88 per cent in May, in the same time frame local high streets saw a drop of just 44 per cent.
In the short term, this inevitably means a quieter high street with more empty spaces. But businesses will adapt to this new landscape – empty units will eventually be snapped up by service-based operators such as gyms, health centres and community services. Tough times are ahead, therefore, but the death knell is not yet sounding for our high streets.