News headlines this week suggest that, despite small increases in the numbers of people visiting the high street, this type of shopping is still in danger becoming a thing of the past. A so-called ‘no splurge’ attitude amongst shoppers is contributing to an ongoing problem for high street retailers who simply can’t attract the spending needed to keep their shops viable.
As of March the number of high street shoppers actually visiting stores was up slightly, by 1.4% compared to last year. Whilst this is still an increase – when measured at the same time last year, it was actually down by 6% – it hardly represents a surge of shoppers.
More worrying is the fact that, according to British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson, “the higher footfall has not translated into higher spending.” That doesn’t mean that it’s all bad news, though, as she also mentioned that: “Retailers will be relieved to see footfall up from last year though this was heavily influenced by the weather: while shoppers in 2018 were contending with the ‘Beast of the East’, this March has been mild by comparison.”
These statistics come as major department store Debenhams struggles to cling on to its high street presence. It has recently gone into administration and hopes that restructuring its operations may be enough to give it a new lease of life. Other high-profile casualties have been Homebase, BHS, Toys ‘R’ Us, HMV and – of course – Woolworths back in 2008/2009. This suggests that it is an ongoing issue driven by major changes in how we shop and how we interact with town centres, rather than by minor shifts in high street numbers.
This could be down to several different factors. Online shopping is an obvious contender: the ease and convenience of shopping online means that it is often unnecessary to visit a physical shop. It also means that people may do more research about what to buy before hitting the shops, making it easier to avoid impulse purchases and up-sells.
Now, with Brexit on the horizon and a lot of general economic uncertainty, a frugal mood across the country is also being flagged as a key contributor. People are choosing to watch their pennies and avoid taking on unnecessary debt, something which is probably beneficial for individuals even if it does mean problems for certain businesses.
Overall, though, it seems unlikely that the high street is going anywhere any time soon. Instead, we expect to see a change in the types of establishment that are opening. From museum gift-shops, which are said to be experiencing a boom at the moment, to the independent coffee shops popping up across the country, it’s clear that not every type of retail is suffering. It may be that consumers decide to focus on spending money on activities and experiences instead of traditional purchases – and it that’s the case, the British high street will be sure to adjust accordingly.
In the meantime, though, the job losses and uncertainty that come with major chains closing down certainly means that it’s not a desirable outcome. It is hoped that brighter weather and more visitors to shopping centres will help improve the outlook for many stores over the coming month, making it easier for us to transition to a new type of high street.