Let’s stop kidding ourselves that we know what the future high street will look like

I keep noticing that the media and analysts talk endlessly about the future of the high street and they have been for at least five years. Today, there is almost a sense of glee over their predictions surely now coming true as Covid has led to widespread store closures and a sudden shift to online. But these aren’t really all that helpful. Consider the piece in today’s Evening Standard, which spends the entire article talking about what happened but can’t quite say what might happen.

A quick review of what everyone else is saying reveals only one solid suggestion and it’s at least five years old. It’s a tired iteration urging retailers to more theatrical in their in-store presentation. Tired as it is, it has suddenly acquired new relevance with the demise of Debenhams and Arcadia, and the continued doubts circulating about the final size of the John Lewis estate. And yet no one is saying that the specialist departments stores are under threat, namely Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Harrods. They are protected as they are by their small number of sites and their exclusive brand image. That’s that I think; we can now safely say that the mass appeal department store is now 100% online.

Fewer stores, more jobs?

We can also say that there will be fewer stores overall and possibly less people working in retail too, except why does no one attempt to calculate the total number of retail employees by taking on line fully into account?

And also add the growing number of support industries around online retail, most notably logistics and fulfilment? The BRC needs to redefine retail employment at some point but for now, its focus remains on the store.

I am now starting to think that the high street will return to normal, meaning less chains, more independents, more specialists but more or less what we have had for 50 or more years. There will be centres of excellence as it were in some of the shopping centres and individual streets in wealthy cities (meaning London), but the remaining 95% will look pretty much like it did before lockdowns 1-3.

It is inside the store that the real changes will be made and are now going on much faster than at any point in the past – click to store, fast payments, multichannel returns, intelligent traffic monitoring and analysis, workforce optimisation to capitalise on sales opportunities, the next generation of augmented reality, multichannel promotions – in short, making retail all about the experience and less about the friction.

Making a case for the transformation of all retail from these examples is a mug’s game, because the truth is, up to 70% of retailers will simply go back to doing things the way they did before, so let’s ignore the statistics and focus on the examples, one by one, of a high street in motion fast forward.



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