Adapting to the new age of retail

Following the recent closures of large-scale retail chains such as William Hill, the question of the high street’s future is once again on everyone’s mind. While undoubtedly the face of the high street is changing, closures don’t represent the high street’s swan song, merely its growing pains. 

Outlets which have traditionally occupied a large portion of the high street – clothing vendors, music & DVD stores, and betting shops – are now facing stiff competition from the emergent e-commerce sector, against a backdrop of rising business rates and high employee turnover. For retailers attempting to weather the storm, one of the most important priorities should be retaining customer loyalty. We are witnessing a shift of the zeitgeist, and with it a shift in the way consumers use the high street. Changing consumer expectations means that retailers are offered the choice – adapt or close. 

Increasingly, consumers – particularly millennials and Gen Z – are looking for more ‘experience-led’ offerings and in certain instances, the high street has begun to accommodate their needs. Outlets which offer experimental elements as part of the shopping experience, or ‘try before you buy’ features – are particularly ahead of the game. 

For instance, John Lewis has begun to offer classes and workshops from calligraphy to curtain-making, which not only give customers an experience, but serves to highlight available products such as sewing machines. In contrast, B&Q – which has ample opportunity to provide DIY classes, or tool instruction – has little in the way of experiential offerings. In the quickly evolving retail sector, companies will need to look towards the former model, and leave the latter in the past. 

Added to this, the proliferation of pop-up offerings – such as Grub and Hatch in Manchester– are creating vibrant, ever-changing cities which can adapt to the needs of consumers. These more fluid spaces can be easily swapped over for the next venture or be quickly repurposed to keep consumers interested. With the trend for ‘experience-led’ offerings, we are seeing an increase in mixed-use ventures, with crossover between retail, leisure and casual dining.

Suburban high-streets, such as Stretford, Kirkby, and Walton Road in the North West also face dwindling footfall and the impact of online shopping. While city centres have proved adept at transitioning towards a new model of high street, the challenges to suburban and town centres require creative thinking to become ‘destination’ locations. The reinvention of Altrincham town centre, driven by the success of Altrincham Market, is a prime example of success. The European-style market – which has fully embraced the pop-up model and the importance of ‘dwell time’ – has reinvigorated the local economy. 

Focusing on sale volume over experience is failing to understand consumer behaviour. While some vendors seem to have adopted a mentality of experience over sales, betting shops, it appears, have yet to do so. With the shift to the way we use physical, urban spaces, there’s reason to remain optimistic about the high street’s future.

David O’Leary, head of retail in the North West at Deloitte

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