An agile answer to essential high street reinvention

John Hoyle
11 December, 23

This year’s wet summer has spelt bad news for our already long-suffering high streets. Low footfall and the continuing cost of living crisis have seen retailers slashing prices in a bid to attract bargain hunters. This latest in a long line of retail challenges has seen 6,000 shops disappear from UK high streets in the past five years.

However, the cycle of closures, flash-sale tactics and legacy retail design shows that innovation is lacking. The result is the decline of the high street, which costs communities as well as retailers. To save our high streets and to ensure long-term success, retailers must embrace entirely new strategies. 

Both retailers and landlords are well aware that the high street is facing a critical existential challenge in its current state. Without dramatic transformation, British towns and cities face losing the beating heart of their economies. We must admit that the traditional retail model is broken. Retailers can no longer afford to commit to high rents and rates. When they do, they too often rely on stale store design, which flies in the face of rapidly evolving customer expectations for innovative, engaging, experience-based shopping.

The sad truth is that high streets are boring. While in-person engagement remains crucial, shops are characterised by monotonous models. This is not helped by inflexible landlords. The high street needs a complete redesign. Consumer demands, changing engagement channels and a need for swift, responsive strategy means that flexibility, innovation, affordability and agility are imperative. To enable experimentation retailers need ways to engage with consumers creatively in a low-risk and cost-effective manner. Just as the office, residential, and hospitality sectors have adopted new business models to cater to customer demands, the retail industry must evolve to avoid increasing vacancy and obsolescence.

Why save the high street?

British high streets are more than retail. As Ricky Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies at LSE writes, “Britain’s high streets are an intrinsic part of the social and economic fabric of our cities; the high street not only contributes economic value but also social value to surrounding communities.”

They are the beating heart of communities, with offline retail essential to local economies. But to thrive, the high street must deliver on heightened customer expectations. Omnichannel retail is still the dominating buzzword as customers still crave physical interactions with brands. The worlds where physical and digital seamlessly merge means online and offline retail are not separate, but a fully connected experience. The high street will always have a place, but the way we interact with it must evolve.

According to McKinsey, “Physical stores will be instrumental in helping retailers capture greater share”, but retailers must be wary that these gains can only be achieved if they embrace instore innovation. Analysis suggests that tech-enabled ‘stores of the future’ can “double retailers EBIT margins” and “provide a better customer experience and greater employee engagement”.

However, it’s impossible to deny that it is expensive for brands to maintain a physical presence all year round. For many it seems illogical to staff a physical location, let alone to commit to long-term contracts. Retail spaces must therefore be adaptable, digitally-connected and flexible to meet consumers’ changing needs – not the static stores we are so accustomed to. Additionally, retailers must be supported by landlords to realise this flexible vision in a way that is cost-effective for both.

Reinvention through innovation; a win-win for all

We are already seeing the labours of reinvention bear fruit. A multitude of Depop sellers are using a new approach which sees followers eagerly turn up to meet the online personas behind the brands, resulting in thousands of pounds in sales made within a single afternoon. And, established brands, from Radley to Jägermeister are also embracing a new agile approach.

What is this new paradigm? Taking inspiration from platforms like Airbnb, alternative models, like short-term rentals, have the potential to revolutionise the high street.

Reimaging retail means enhanced utilisation of physical space to create a more flexible, inclusive, and efficient industry that embraces innovation and adapts to the changing needs of retailers and consumers. Now, approaches that allow fractional leasing of shop premises enable greater access for occupiers and generate more revenue for landlords. By offering digitally connected, flexible, and pop-up spaces, retailers of all shapes and sizes can experiment, engage with customers, and establish their brand presence in a low-risk and cost-effective manner.

Where the traditional retail model mainly accommodated landlords, with long-term leases providing stability, they do not meet the needs of today. Such inflexibility limits pricing options and results in prolonged vacancies. This approach resulted in monotonous high streets, excluding a wide range of potential occupiers, from online brands to community users.

By democratising access to high streets, we can make them more engaging and provide customers with greater incentives to return. Large brands can reach customers in locations they would never have considered for a physical store, while smaller brands can establish a presence and connect with local consumers.

Reimagining the high street means creating a more flexible, inclusive, and efficient industry that embraces innovation and adapts to the changing needs of retailers and consumers. Connecting innovative spaces to retailers for short-term lets requires a digitally-enabled intermediary to provide effective property management and support tailored to the needs of brands.

Reimaging the high street makes everyone a winner. Retailers enjoy access to agile, innovative spaces where they can experiment, engage and connect with their customers. Landlords fill vacant spaces, with short-term leasing increasing earnings by up to 43% and communities benefiting from unique high-street experiences that give a reason to return, time and again.

It’s time to embrace an agile revolution and come together to save Britain’s high streets. Let’s adapt, innovate, and create a thriving future for our local communities.

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