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Why it’s not the end of the road for the UK high street

The doom mongers who had been anticipating the end of the British high street thought the pandemic would prove to be the final nail in the coffin.

Pre-Covid, in January 2020, online made up a fifth of total UK retail sales; a year later, at the height of the Coronavirus crisis, that figure had almost doubled.

Yet over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen that shoppers are keen to hit the shops again with gusto whenever lockdown restrictions are eased. So, while the Omicron variant understandably impacted trading for the festive period, there are positive signs that footfall will surge again when work from home guidance relaxes and consumer confidence returns.

Looking back, the high street drove significant sales growth during November, despite all the noise around Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and online sales fell back to around a quarter of all sales.

Clearly, online is the fastest-growing format in the retail industry, but it is striking that, even at the peak of the pandemic, the vast majority of sales were still taking place in bricks and mortar stores.

Street smart

Last year, Primark – the UK’s second-biggest clothing retailer – reinforced its faith in the high street with the announcement that it will open 130 new stores around the world over the next five years.

Primark is an unusual brand as it does not have an ecommerce site, and while it is expanding its online offer so customers can browse most of its range on its website, they still have to visit a store if they want to buy anything.

Despite some of the biggest retail names moving to online-only models over the last 18 months – including the likes of Topshop, Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins and Burton – there are others still putting their money in bricks and mortar. Even Amazon is opening stores.

But, who has called it right?

Engage and inspire

It’s clear that physical locations will continue to play a key role in driving a positive brand experience in the future and can still offer a huge return on investment for retailers.

The fact is physical stores can work to create and maintain a brand’s image in a way that an online presence cannot.

As such, bricks and mortar locations will continue to play a key role in driving a positive brand experience in the future.

Shops that provide an experience – rather than just shifting product – create a focal point where customers can engage with the brand and be inspired, driving loyalty.

This requires a fresh approach; the importance of physical stores is in creating and maintaining a brand’s image in a way that an online presence cannot.

The physical shopping experience cannot be easily replicated online - customers can touch and try on products. They can ask consultants for advice. Friends and families can meet up and go shopping together.

But so many retailers fail to make the most of their expensive retail spaces.

A new chapter

Creative brands are working to create special experiences to make the customer journey more interesting, like the eminently Instagrammable Friends’ themed Central Perk café at Primark’s Manchester store.

Technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality are also being used to boost engagement, creating a connected omnichannel experience that brings online and instore closer together.

The shop floor will no longer be a place to shift volume sales.

Rather, this all means that stores will become spaces where brands can tell their stories, share their values and inspire customers, not just show off their entire range.

That could mean events like fashion shows, concerts, talks and tutorials, or personalised services like makeovers or advice sessions.

Suitably inspired, shoppers can then use their mobile to digitally check the items they want are in stock, pay for them and then get them delivered to their home or click and collect.

This is the future of the high street - don’t write it off when a new chapter is just beginning. While COVID-19 restrictions may continue to be re-introduced as the UK learns to live with the virus long-term, there are promising signs for bricks and mortar yet.

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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