Across the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has extended its tentacles through the high streets and centres of almost every city and town. Brick and mortar businesses and retailers have closed as people are instructed to social distance, self-isolate or lockdown. In the absence of footfall – and for the safety and wellbeing of their staff – most shops have closed. And staff have been laid off or sent home.
There are of course exceptions most noticeably those vital to the continued life of the city – grocery and food stores, pharmacies and other medical outlets, and (at least in the case of the UK) bike shops to support people exercising.
The eerie silence of the city centre and high street is most hope only a temporary, unwelcome but necessary product of the massive social experiment in fighting off the impact of the coronavirus.
But as some retail businesses have indicated this closure is unlikely to be temporary. The decision to close Laura Ashley stores for example in the UK was accelerated by the coronavirus outbreak, discouraging possible life saying investors, and they will not be the only prominent high street business where the current crisis accelerates the impact of the decline of high street retailing visible over the past few years. And for many smaller business, often family run, the loss of earnings is likely to be fatal too.
What the Covid-19 pandemic has shown even more starkly than previous is the fragility of the high street and city centre retail sector. Data for 2019 pointed to a record 2,868 store closures in the UK and there is every likelihood that the first 6 months of 2020 will bring about more closures.
But as with most dramatic situations, there are also positive stories of the resilience of sector, where this moment of crisis has acted as a catalyst to adapt. The transition of restaurants into takeaway outlets, the move towards online retailing to ensure stock can be sold, and the development of home delivery services to support the vulnerable and self-isolating customers who are not allowed to set foot in the traditional shop all underline the sector’s ability to respond to new needs and challenges.
Going forward there are more fundamental questions about whether the short-term nature of the present change to the high street will have longer term impacts.
Statistics for 2019 (Office for National Statistics) indicate that just under 20% of retail sales were made online in the UK, with a weekly spend of over £1.3m. Encouraged by the drive towards online shopping as a safer alternative to the usual social activity of the ‘shopping trip’, more people who have in the past shunned this form of purchasing will have had their first experience of online retail. And they may not revert of past habits if their experience is positive, meeting the motivators of convenience, availability, choice and pricing that past research highlights matters in enticing more online shopping.
And in the rush to meet the rise in demand for online shopping and the associated delivery of goods, there will be a much expanded infrastructure available post-virus shutdowns – an infrastructure that retailers will be reluctant to withdraw from given their investment. So we can expect added impetus in future to utilise the online platforms, payment methods (see also the article on the future of cash), and home delivery. Even local stores which in the past lacked the investment capital and drive to have significant online and home delivery presences have had to adapt to respond to the new circumstances. They too may well continue this service.
Critical too might be the disruptive impact of the current shopping restrictions. Advocates of a more positive future of the high street often point to the social connectivity of shopping suggesting that retailers flourish when they manage to create a strong brand and offer consumers an enjoyable customer experience, something which often only a physical store can provide. But with more people moving online for shopping at the moment, they are also exposed to the increasing sociable aspects of this retailing – including the growing trends towards social commerce and collaborative online shopping (i.e., co-shopping). It remains to be researched to see if such experiences act as a magnet for future social shopping!
In the post-Covid-19 world, there is likely to remain a space for in-store leisure shopping and thus the current crisis is not likely to be the final death knell of the High Street store. But it is likely to accelerate the growth of online retailing adding further pressure for the traditional store to adjust.