Today (2 December) marks the end of the national lockdown followed by the re-opening of all non-essential shops. Here, Professor Carley Foster, Head of the Centre for Business Improvement
at the University of Derby, discusses the implications for the high street in the run up to Christmas and beyond.
Undoubtedly this is good news for those in retail, particularly those that do not have a strong online presence, as it will help retailers to recoup losses during a curtailed golden quarter – traditionally, the most lucrative sales period of the year. It is anticipated that for many, the need to purchase Christmas gifts and other seasonal products will persuade people to leave the comfort and perceived safety of their own homes to shop in physical stores – although it is acknowledged that this may not be at the same level as previous years.
But what happens after Christmas when physical stores stay open, yet the pandemic remains and the flurry of festive buying ends? How will non-essential retailers attract shoppers to the high street?
Creating a better shopping experience
Assuming stores are following safety guidance, so that the public feel comfortable shopping, we need to get people used to the idea of physically shopping again and this will require a multi-pronged approach.
Unfortunately retailing, as a leisure activity, has lost its allure. This may sound strange given shopping has always been, for many, a pleasurable British pastime. However, more than ever, retailers need to highlight how enjoyable the physical retail experience can be.
The ability to touch, see, hear, taste and smell products, experience the store atmosphere and interact face-to-face with store staff, all helps to create a unique retail encounter that cannot be replicated online. This experience may look different this year, but stores need to be creative in finding ways to deliver it safely and not rely on trying to compete on price, convenience or availability, as this is where online retailers are hard to beat.
What can others do to support non-essential retailers?
A wider move by those responsible for town centres and high streets to encourage the public to visit and shop post-Christmas is desperately needed. In the short-term, an injection of government support in the form of a financial incentive to encourage people to physically shop could be an immediate solution.
In many ways, this could mirror the principles of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme introduced to the hospitality industry during the pandemic. Such a scheme would particularly benefit independent stores to stay afloat during the start of next year. Spending in the community has become a priority for some, with shoppers preferring to patronise local businesses rather than travel to well-known high street names. A monetary incentive could help to cement this even further.
While it is recognised that planning in a pandemic is extremely challenging, those in charge of managing town centres need to look to the longer-term by developing a more holistic view of what is on offer. Retail is important for town centres, but it should not be the only focus. Instead, other elements such as housing, entertainment, hospitality, visitor attractions and employers can all help to entice the public into the locality which in turn, will inevitably lead to more people spending in shops.
Town and city centres, therefore, need to develop a sense of place and community which entices people out of their homes by providing multiple reasons to justify a visit. By adopting a rounded view of town centres, retailers and the high street will be more insulated from future difficult trading conditions post-Christmas and post-Covid.