The UK high street is going through a period of change, with a lot of our well-known brands closing their stores and smaller independent retailers struggling to survive. There are a lot of vacant units giving the feeling that the high streets and shopping areas have been neglected, which can make these areas feel less desirable and reduce the sense of community. 

As these high street shops close, we’re being challenged to think that a ‘high street’ is not just made up of retailers, but more importantly, as a local community hub that brings people together in a variety of ways to make a town thrive and support everyone.

This focus is driving some urban and retail planning collectives of experts to get creative when it comes to shop closures and to town centre redesign.

The importance of community has been intensified over the last year, with more awareness of the detrimental effects of loneliness and isolation on mental health. As a result, more local support initiatives have been popping up, local businesses have had to be inventive with how to support and communicate with their customers, and necessity combined with convenience has encouraged the explosion of digital with physical interaction to give a much-needed platform for socialising.

Together, this adversity is driving some very exciting innovation and ideas for the high street

Your high street and store closures

Clearly, it is unsustainable for retailers to operate stores when their retail and customer insight data is telling them that the current status quo is not working — that they can’t pay the bills and that their opportunities are limited with their customers predominantly wanting a more convenient offering. 

We might be social beings that want to touch and feel a product, but enough of us have to want that to pay a lease, rates and overheads of running a shop. In some cases, a shop is viable, but in others, it isn’t.

Independent retailers are incredibly important to the vitality of the high street, taking up 65%* of the retail and leisure units available. In 2020, independent high street retailers actually faired much better than bigger retailers, with 1442* closing their shops (vs 9877* for multiple retailers), according to the report from the Local Data Company

Retailers, local businesses, and other local initiatives benefit from understanding the dynamics of the surrounding population, their customers or users, and the wants and needs of this local community. The use of location analytics and statistical analysis will help us all understand the performance and opportunity for businesses, local amenities, stores and business sites, and the online vs offline interaction.

Your reimagined high street

If we take the concept of a high street as a supportive hub that includes everything from grocery shops, health centres, local craft and farmers markets, banking hubs to community initiatives and cafes, we can start to reimagine a high street that has everything we need, but maybe not as it has been before.

Some of the ideas to reduce the vacant retail units include repurposing them for collaborative workspaces, pop-up shops, art districts, university lecture halls, charity hubs, ‘retailtainment’ on larger high streets such as mobile bars, family entertainment centres, bowling alleys and laser tag, and digital-enabled shops for returns, collections, and banking.

There is also a lot of interesting innovation using digital platforms to give us the convenience we are getting used to, but with an aim to draw people to local shops and services.

The government’s select committee have stated that they “.. are convinced that high streets and town centres will survive, and thrive, in 2030 if they adapt, becoming activity-based community gathering places where retail is a smaller part of a wider range of uses and activities. Green space, leisure, arts and culture and health and social care services must combine with housing to create a space that is the ‘intersection of human life and activity’ based primarily on social interactions rather than financial transactions. Individual areas will need to identify the mix that best suits their specific characteristics, local strengths, culture and heritage. Fundamentally, community must be at the heart of all high streets and town centres in 2030.” The Great British High Street

The 2030 high street regeneration is also on the government’s agenda, as they need to reduce carbon emissions, ensure people have services within a short distance, and help the economy thrive. There are lots of interesting plans that are in progress which are focusing on things like better public transport, new park plans, more trees, widening pedestrian walkways and extending cycle lanes.

The 15-minute city concept is being investigated by a number of teams working on applications for the business improvement district (BID) funding, and exciting plans are progressing for towns such as Ipswich. The idea is that everything you need is close by, resulting in lower carbon emissions, a supported community, and a thriving economy. 

As your high street changes

The increased awareness of supporting your local community, with a focus on sustainability and a desire to keep a thriving and social town centre, is an evolving and extremely interesting area that has implications for all of us. There is a vested interest for local businesses, retailers, local authorities, landlords and other community-focused businesses alike, as well as for us as local residents.

This new era of the high street will mean we can be creative and we can move away from identikit towns and shopping centres, that town centres become thriving hubs supporting the individual needs of its local population, and that the high street might become a word that means ‘community hub’ rather than a street of shops.

This is a cause that will benefit us all, and we can get involved in. The social implications are so important to keep us all positive, supported, and happy — especially in light of the year we have just had, where the importance of social interaction has become more obvious and not something that we can just take for granted.

As retail data and statistical analysts, LH Analytics takes great interest in what’s happening on the high street, and we’re passionate about bringing people together in the community.

LH Analytics can analyse your retail data and use location insights to help you to decide where to position your store or local business, and how to optimise your business on predicted demand and success. For more information, email or find out more here.