Carley Foster, Professor of Services Marketing at the University of Derby, considers how our high street stores have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, and what the retail offer of our town centres could be in a socially-distanced future.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, UK town centres and high streets were experiencing a period of change. Driven by increased overheads, retail oversupply, changing consumer demands and less disposable income, physical stores were closing rapidly across the country.
Mainstays of the high street went into administration and consumers were migrating at an increasing rate from bricks-and-mortar shopping to online. Some have regarded this change as decline, others evolution, but ultimately we were in the middle of a journey to a reincarnated UK town centre.
A new identity
In response to this, we were beginning to see visions emerging of town centres which would offer a more ‘rounded’ offer to draw the general public in. Retail would be just one element of the town centre jigsaw, combined with other components such as leisure, culture, transport, housing and business.
Supported by national and local initiatives, town centre stakeholders were starting to work on the notion of developing clearer town centre ‘identities’ and a sense of place for their visitors and residents. Plans were starting to take place…and then COVID-19 hit.
The obvious question is then, what impact will COVID-19 have on the evolution of town centres? The answer could be that the reincarnation journey has simply gathered speed. Social distancing, shielding and self-isolation means that physical footfall has dramatically fallen and the vast majority of stores remain closed. Whether these shops will re-open post-pandemic remains to be seen.
For some retailers, the forced shift away from face-to-face transactions may present an opportunity to reduce the need for physical space and hence the high costs associated with this. This could potentially lead to cost savings for customers too. Given that we do not know how long preventative measures will be in place, retailers will be considering how necessary physical space is, particularly if stores need to be adapted to accommodate socially distant customers.
Shifts in buying and selling
Added to the issue of space, the outbreak has meant that retailers have been forced to offer alternative ways of selling their products and interacting with customers. For the vast majority of retailers and customers, this has meant a rapid move to online buying and selling as the primary method of transactions.
Interestingly though, we have seen the rise of telephone orders delivered to customers by smaller, independent retailers who have physical stores but no online presence. For these types of retailers, serving their local community with essential items through a more traditional method of ‘distance’ selling, has provided a lifeline for their businesses but also vulnerable customers.
It may be that this continues to provide an income stream for these smaller retailers and a key community service when things return to normal.
A key piece of the jigsaw
All of this though means that the physical retail offer in town centres is likely to decline and become even more widespread post COVID-19.
This may sound like a depressing thought, but what it means is that creating a real sense of place and community where retail is just one element of the town centre offer becomes even more important. Those retailers who want to maintain a physical presence in town centres, while potentially small in number, will play an important role in attracting people to the high street and completing the town centre jigsaw.
Only those retailers who can serve the needs of the catchment area, support the wider town centre identity and offer goods and services which compete less on replicable factors such as price and more on intangible elements such as customer service and retail experience, will survive as and when the lockdown is lifted. COVID-19, therefore, has meant that our journey to a reincarnated town centre has accelerated whether we like it or not.