There have been many articles describing the challenges facing our high streets. Both lockdown restrictions and the pandemic’s residual economic effects have had a dramatic impact on retail, provoking this discussion. Interestingly, however, the general critique of these observations are not often novel. The narrative of a struggling high street, one up against supposedly insurmountable difficulties, pre-dates the pandemic by years.
The retail industry has, since the establishment of e-commerce, undergone significant change, and it is remarkably easy for critics to write the high street off as a lost cause. The reality is very different. A more considered analysis would take into account the qualities of brick and mortar retail that has and continues to improve, such as, notably, locality.
Customers Prefer Local
As of 2020, two-thirds of customers prefer to shop locally, with nearly half motivated by wanting to support the local economy. Additionally, there is a greater level of trust in local business, as well as a value placed upon the potential relationships developed. Despite the financial struggles created by the health crisis, this prioritisation of locality has grown because of it, with a greater number of people favouring the convenience of local businesses.
These benefits not only work for customers and retailers, but also the local manufacturers, artisans, and creatives, those who are able to showcase their wares in the windows and on the slatwall of local shops. As customers place greater importance on locality, products produced and designed in the nearby area will see market support.
While much of a local economy’s strength derives from residential practicality, such as proximity to homes, part also comes from the sense of community. Online neighbourhood groups have grown in recent years, with more local areas than ever seeing their residents interacting with each other, often with offers of support, such as to take in grocery deliveries or recommend local services.
These groups are advantageous for local retailers, since they offer a platform to interact with their local clientele, allowing them to gauge customer needs and meet local demand. And, beyond stocking greeting card units with local favourites, individual relationships can be developed online, utilising the internet to promote local, brick and mortar retail. In fact, search engines like Google are now facilitating their services to help retailers in this way, helping customers to reach businesses in their area.
New online platforms have also been created specifically to celebrate local businesses. Love Record Stores and Shop Here Not There are two examples of how support has rallied online to help direct people to their local stores, steering them away from e-commerce competitors.
The Future of the High Street
There are undeniable difficulties facing high street retailers, and we are already seeing many national brands reduce the number of stores they operate around the UK. However, when considering smaller, independent businesses, there have been many stories of success. If we are to discuss retail across the UK, the two must be spoken about together.