Reset for the UK’s high streets

By John Quinton-Barber | 01 April 2020

Last month, we began one of the country’s most ambitious high street consultations in York, starting a conversation I believe every local authority needs to have.

Although York has a low percentage of empty shops and is one of the most popular destinations in Britain, it is to the council’s great credit that it is not complacent. York may be blessed with iconic buildings and a rich history, but, like every other city, it is not immune to change.

Commissioned in response to the major challenges facing high streets, every community is being surveyed to ultimately determine a vision that will guide investment, improvement projects and shape development for decades to come.

Over 12 weeks, we planned public meetings, exhibitions, workshops, rich social media engagement and street stalls to discover people’s views on challenges ranging from the climate emergency and complex transport issues to a housing crisis, affordability and changing consumer behaviour driven by technology. Then the coronavirus pandemic properly took hold.

Our conversation has now moved completely online but questions over what our future high streets will look like have assumed far greater importance.

York is not on its own in recognising that its high streets are a frontline for change. From Bicester to Sheffield, councils are consulting with local communities on how to deliver a better future. But, as high streets empty and shops close due to the coronavirus threat, that future becomes more unclear.

One thing that does look certain, however, is when this crisis ends, we are not going to return to the status quo – big reset is coming. This is being driven by technology.

While bricks and mortar businesses are staring at the abyss, Amazon is hiring thousands of new workers, Facebook traffic for video calling and messaging has exploded and people using Microsoft software for collaboration is rocketing.

Technology is enabling the takeaway and delivery market to become increasingly creative and online retailing is undoubtedly going to increase its market share.

Lockdown Britain is more reliant on technology than ever before and it is likely to define the new normal in a profound way.

In practical terms this means high streets that have not yet reached digital maturity are going to fall further behind. Local authorities and business improvement districts need to accelerate digital transformation so that businesses are communicating digitally on one platform, with live reporting dashboards showing how customers respond to content.

They need full electronic point of sale integration, enabling basket capture data that will provide them with unique insights and ensure they can send real-time offers and live opportunities to shoppers’ phones.

Tech is certainly going to benefit from the changing consumer habits, which will only harden as the coronavirus crisis endures. Getting the right technological infrastructure in place will therefore be critical.

A former mayor of Stockholm once compared high speed digital connectivity to be as important a strategic utility for her city as water – and this analogy seems more pertinent than ever.

Paradoxically, while technology that enables us to stay connected while apart is booming, I anticipate a bigger emphasis on the importance of community for high streets when we eventually emerge from this crisis.

Humans are naturally social creatures and a ‘community hub’ model with vibrant gathering points such as open plazas, food halls and cultural venues will thrive.

The only way to properly understand how these changes might shape our environment is to learn more about the public’s changing needs and behaviour. Without this we are groping in the dark.

For too long there has been a binary discussion in our media of high street winners and losers: those struggling in the face of shop closures and dwindling footfall, and those that are holding up amidst challenging times.

This ignores an important third category – the places which recognise that the traditional high street model has changed forever and are busy planning for the future.

Five years ago, a Government-backed Digital High Street 2020 report warned that leadership from local authorities was critical to eliminate the gap in digital skills in order to keep up with consumers.

That future is now upon us and unless we understand the rapidly changing needs, our high streets will lose their historic purpose.

Coronavirus should be a wake-up call to properly connect our communities and recognise how technological disruption can benefit us all.

John Quinton-Barber is founder and chief executive officer of Social – an integrated agency with offices in Bristol, Manchester and Leeds

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