how to prevent our city centres from turning into ghost towns

The past few days have seen a watershed in the world of retail. Online-only fashion company Boohoo is on a spending spree, buying cash-strapped “bricks and mortar” brands that were previously staples of the high street. Barely out of infancy, Boohoo snapped up Debenhams a few days ago and is now in talks to buy Dorothy Perkins, Wallis and Burton – all brands from failed retail group Arcadia. Not to be outdone, ASOS, another online-only fashion retailer, is expected to step in and rejuvenate Topshop, which is also owned by Arcadia.

Tellingly, neither Boohoo nor ASOS are taking over the physical stores of the brands that they are buying. This inevitably confirms the closure of hundreds of shops and the loss of thousands of jobs. Indeed, the high street has been struggling for some time. In more than three-quarters of local authorities in the UK, for example, high street retail jobs fell between 2015 and 2018. In 2018, the same data showed that high streets were heavily dependent on offices, comprising 29% of high street employment in north-east England and 49% in London.

The Boohoo brand
Boohoo: no tears for legacy stores.
Postmodern Studio

The main reason for retail decline? Internet shopping, which explains the buying power of Boohoo and ASOS. One of the reasons for their success – and the failure of high-street rivals to compete – is business rates. Retailers with a presence on the high street paid £7.2 billion in business rates in 2018/19, while online traders paid only £457 million on their out-of-town warehouses.

Then came COVID-19. Thanks to the government-mandated lockdowns, the retail industry’s shift to digital has become even more marked. Online sales are now predicted to grow to US$6.5 trillion (£4.7 trillion) worldwide by 2022, up from US$3.5 trillion in 2019.

With automation also threatening the loss of many retail jobs in future, some are predicting that as much as 95% of shopping will be online by 2040.

The future of high streets

So what should be done with high streets in future? We suggest that high streets need to be social spaces. Shopping is usually seen as a fun social experience, which has been put on hold because of the health crisis.

The challenge is to find a social experience that can work on the high street but fits around online shopping. Amazon, for example, has started to create Amazon Go showrooms, where people can view goods and pick up orders, and their accounts are debited without even having to go through a checkout.

Other online retailers could try something similar, or brands could pay a fee to have their products represented in someone else’s showroom. As for surviving traditional retailers, they will increasingly need to offer an experience that people can’t get online or on their phone if they want to keep attracting customers. Local authorities can help here by giving high streets face lifts, while encouraging communal activities for both adults and children.

Amazon Go is a new kind of store featuring advanced shopping technology. There are no lines and no checkout, you just grab and go.

Other ideas discussed in our research involve concepts from the circular economy, which encourages the continual use of resources, and the sharing economy. For example, repair cafes, where people can have their broken products repaired for a small price, could become more popular. Also, The Swedish ReTuna, a recycling mall, is the best example of a shopping centre selling only items that were donated and upcycled.

Additionally, second hand shops and libraries of things, where people can borrow or rent items, including fashion, household, toys and games, and tools, could establish themselves in high streets. The current high street crisis is painful, but it is also an opportunity to reinvent the shopping experience we grew to know and love in the past.

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