The future of Britain’s high street

Read our latest blog written by our Managing Director, Caroline Woffenden, on the changing nature of Britain’s high street.


I have gravitated to the world of retail my entire 20-year PR career, with my first PR accounts the then-Woolworths and Tammy Girl brands, moving onto the retail giants of M&S, Tesco, Sainsburys and B&Q before supporting the likes of retail shopping centres and high street independents more recently. Retail offers a changing and dynamic field but never have the struggles of our humble high street been more considered than they are today.

Indeed unions and retailers have recently called for urgent action as the latest statistics show an alarming rise in the number of restaurants, pubs and shops lying empty.

The financial analysists PriceWaterhouseCooper reported a net decline of 1,234 chain stores on Britain’s 500 high streets during the first half of 2019 – and we’ve just been told its the fifth consecutive quarter of decline. It’s not good reading for us retail-luvies.

Major chains including Karen Millen – my staple shop of choice during my (lithe) 20s and (lean) 30s before (the mid age spread of) my 40s set in – along with Jack Wills, Debenhams and Patisserie Valerie have all gone into administration this year, with the latest retail shock-wave to reverberate, dear old Mothercare. Mothercare! An institution! Some struggling retailers have been bought – but many stores have been shut, and many jobs lost along the way.

So, where are we all now spending our time and money if not searching through the racks at Karen Millen and goo-ing at the latest baby wear at Mothercare? A right of passage for many of us above the 40 year threshold…

Online shopping has obviously had an impact. Sofa surfing and purchasing is certainly where I’m at. Indeed  my 2/3am shopping is positively buoyant as I feed / nurse a child in one arm and order more Calpol, bed wear – and a bottle of wine – through a bleary eye with my other hand.

The one over whelming continuous is that the consumer is king – and ‘convenience’ in a day and age of frantic and frenetic lives seemingly is winning the day.

But is it all pull from the mighty online? Or a bit of push too?

High Streets are feeling the pain but they must respond to the fundamental change in shopping habits. Indeed the government recently increased its high street rescue fund by £325M to £1Bn promising to pump extra money into 10 towns. Good and welcome news. Plus there is to be £900M relief in business rates for small retailers; and a task force of experts to assist local authorities in developing ‘innovative strategies to help high streets evolve.’ Hear hear.

This is just what is needed: support and nurture of true entrepreneurism is required to allow a healthy retailer landscape. Innovation and change needs to speak up. Amazon doesn’t have it all.

As the Christmas period begins, I – along with millions of others – will bask in the idea of taking my children to a thriving high street to visit a grotto, buy a Christmas tree, turkey and various other delicacies for the Christmas table (as familiar as my children are with the Sainsbury’s North East Derbyshire delivery team) before diving in somewhere for a long and relaxing massage (without the children…).

The Christmas markets and shopping centres are seemingly winning out – but perhaps the high street should take some lead from this. Once again, it’s time to respond. As this week’s Retail Week has so neatly put it, today it’s a question of getting better, not just bigger. Perhaps a lesson to us all.

So I’d like to think not the death of the high street, simply time to fight back. Quality over quantity all the way.