by Chris Bell, Trustee

Back in the 1960s when I was seven years old my Dad bought the family grocery business. I remember his Dad, who had run a similar shop in Hillsborough since the war, tutting and telling him that retail is finished. After his retirement, I ended up running my grandfather’s shop for a couple of years in the 1980s before moving on to work in advertising where I dealt with the much less than glamorous world of media buying for retail advertisers.

I do not presume this experience qualifies me as a retail expert, but the death of the shop and retail has been predicted in many forms over the years, and with what’s happening now in the high streets I wonder if this fear is exaggerated, or possibly completely wrong.

Local authorities up and down the land are ‘repurposing’ shopping areas in ways that don’t need shops as if no one will ever go shopping again. They are desperately seeking some other uses instead of shops with which to fill the town centres.

However, I think it is premature to right the shop off. Some areas of retail appear to be making more money than ever now because sales are displaced from other shops. Shops are making money at the expense of the hospitality sector. Some of the people who have lost their jobs during COVID are going to set up businesses at some stage as we try to build ourselves out of the recession and there are many people, like me, in traditional office jobs now working from home who are still earning as before but have had limited opportunity to spend their hard-earned cash.

Now I work in a planning role, and this working from home malarkey ain’t easy at the moment, I am busy. That’s largely because all the developers who are normally splitting their workload between planning and delivery are allocating any spare time when they cannot be on-site to move future plans forward at a quicker rate.

Also, there looks to be, once COVID has passed, an appetite to support renewal. The Government may put their hand in their (or our) pockets to fund ventures.

Over in the US President Biden has noted the impact of the huge monopolies (Amazon and Google etc) on free trade and the spectre of legislation faces them. Similarly over here the question is being asked about their place in society.

So as we come out of lockdown there will be an opportunity for businesses if not making money to claim market share from the holes that have been created in the High Street. There will be people looking to set up businesses to get out of unemployment. There will be people who have spare cash craving the opportunity to have something to spend it on. There will be businesses with plans to deliver. There are likely to be incentives from the Government to grow the economy, and lots of available shop space.

I recall back in the noughties Pubs were being written off. Beer was cheaper at the supermarket. The smoking ban kicked in. Converting licenced premises to residential offered greater returns than beer! But, I think it is safe to say with the Craft Beer revolution and growth of micro-pubs the market bounced back.

Similarly, I think shop-retail will too. Like the pubs back then there are wider economic factors at work. Shop-based retail has to compete with e-commerce now. Something will give and open up markets. Shops may become better at creating their online presence and become showrooms for wider ranges of products. We had the experimental shop ‘Clicks and Mortar’ trying this in Sheffield and John Lewis have their model where stores and online complement each other. Competitive markets attract more retail space. Since Aldi, Netto and Lidl joined the food retail scene in the UK I think it is accurate to say the numbers of Sainsbury and Tesco outlets grew as competition increased.

So I hope as the vaccine starts to work and the new normal kicks in we will see a return to the High Street. This may be different to before. It may be that we don’t have clone towns anymore. New retail innovators will appear. There are more people living in city centres now, perhaps more food retail will be needed in these locations. Rents may come down.

Therefore I predict shop based retail to evolve (mutate like the virus if you like) rather than disappear. Local authorities should look at the type of retail we have and ask if we can shift the focus back into traditional shopping areas and away from out of town? They should look at trying to encourage new local ventures and look at the opportunities it offers as well as the challenges it faces and ask if high street retail will really shrink as much as they think it will.

On top of their competitive tax position, many local authorities, when they see a big number of new jobs they attract, bend over backwards to attract retail distribution centres and ignore how it affects the High Street. However, I predict a more balanced approach to this will emerge. So when my Grandfather said retail was dead back in the ’60s what he was seeing was evolution and rather than extinction and I think that is the same today.

This comment piece was written before the announcement of John Lewis not to reopen its Sheffield City Centre store, along with 8 other locations. It does not change the authors opinions and suggestions of the local retail landscape, and people’s attitudes to retail.

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