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Is there a crisis on the High Street or has COVID-19 simply accelerated the changes we are now seeing?

Is there a crisis on the High Street or has COVID-19 simply accelerated the changes we are now seeing?

In 2009 I recall the outcry as Woolworth closed its 807 stores across the UK.  Jobs were lost and large noticeable empty units became a regular sight on high streets across the country.  Back in 1971, 70% of high street retailers were represented by 29,000 different companies; but today, 70% of the high street is represented by 100 companies.

Over ten year since the Woolworth closures, are we are witnessing a further structural change on our high streets?  Well established brands, a main staple of our high street, have been purchased by online retailers casting aside the capital assets of bricks and mortar and scooping up their digital footprints.

Debenhams, acquired by Boohoo for £55m, has a staggering 300m visit a year on its website; one of the top 10 retail websites in the UK, producing sales of over £400m in the year to August 2020 according to the Financial Times.  Some of the brands recently purchased including Burtons, a company synonymous with Leeds, along with Dorothy Perkins and Wallis were not known for their strength in the digital world.  In post war Britain, 1 in every 3 suits in the UK came out of the factories of Burtons in Leeds but we now see these brands physically disappear from our high street to reappear on the internet.

Retail experts would argue that retails brands which have emerged during the internet age have fared better than some of those brands created before, which have struggled to adapt or repurpose their offer to meet the changing demands of the consumer.  So, will we see the brands re-emerge on the high street in the future?  Maybe.  Over recent years property specialists have also stated that there has been an over supply of retail in our towns and cities. Boohoo and Asos don’t want to inherit a large expensive property portfolio but what we have seen in the past are brands being reborn in a new and may be smaller, consolidated and more experiential way.

In this current climate of lockdowns, it is clear online retail has accelerated beyond expectation but will this last and when we return to the outside world, how do we want our high street to look and feel?

One thing is for sure, we cannot rely on retail alone to aid the recovery effort.  The old model of retail needs to be replaced with new thinking to support the transformation of our high streets and district centres.  Services and amenities that have been pushed out, we now realise are important to the diversity of experience and needs that customers want to see.  Health centre, libraries and leisure facilities are important components to the quality of life driven by the covid-19 pandemic.  Quality of life and the places we live are more important now than the materialism of life. Our high streets and cities need to reinvent and reposition, and this requires a holistic view from all sectors of the community.  No one organisation can solve this challenge alone, it requires us all to pull together to ensure our cities and high streets remain resilient and strong.

LeedsBID, a not for profit, non-political organisation, is working with businesses and civic leaders to shape the city of Leeds for the future.  Recognising the need for action now, LeedsBID has already acted in supporting companies like Topshop in redeploying its staff to sectors where there is an immediate job demand.  Encouragingly, Leeds is seeing new investment in retail, hospitality, leisure and commercial property, the pandemic has not put investors off who are instead looking at the long game and seeing the potential of the city.  It is easy to get brought down by the negative news stories of closures and job losses in some areas but on the other hand, opportunities are emerging, and new companies and brands are investing in Leeds, the city is well-placed to spring back, and we all have part to play in telling this positive story.