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Is the high street dead? Long live the high street.

high st

Empty shops. Job losses. Brands in administration. There’s barely a week that goes by without gloomy reports that the high street is on its death bed. Last week’s obituary was printed far and wide, with headlines screaming that the disruption caused by eCommerce has put in-store retail in crisis, with 23,000 shops and 175,000 jobs set to disappear in 2019.

I’m not suggesting that these forecasts should be ignored or that we should be staunchly and naively positive in the face of such challenges. But I do believe that the Great British high street is phoenix-like, resurrecting itself from the flames just when you thought everything had turned to dust.

British retail has faced many challenges over the decades, some far tougher than those that brands are up against today. Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during World War II. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in retail ranges. The way we shop may have been changed by the 2008 recession, but shop we still did and good, solid businesses found strategies to survive, and even thrive. I would not proclaim that overcoming such challenges was a simple task, and indeed the road ahead for retailers in 2019 is not a smooth one. Yet it is my inkling that if the high street can survive a world war and the worst recession for a century, the brands that are determined enough can revive themselves, even in the face of having just seen allegedly ‘the worst year on record’.

So what do I mean by ‘determined’ brands? Well what is clear is that simply doing more of the same isn’t going to suddenly transform the luck of the high street and fight off the tripartite challenge that is eCommerce, Brexit and squeezed incomes. Ask Woolworths – even the plentiful Pic N’ Mix couldn’t save them. It’s the brands that dedicate themselves to offering their consumers something more in-store (I’m a poet and I didn’t know it) that will prosper. Shoppers need to be given a reason to get off the sofa, out of their slippers and into shops (especially in this wonderful Great British weather). Clearly, simply being able to ‘buy stuff’ is not enough of a reason to do this anymore.

Take The Body Shop as an example. People know the products, they know the scents they like (and the ones they don’t), so why bother heading in store when you can get your Almond Nourishing Body Butter delivered right to your door? The clever people at The Body Shop know this. They also know their customer base and plan to attract them into stores by turning them into ‘activist hubs’ where shoppers can campaign for what they believe in whilst they shop. The Body Shop’s target audience will be incentivised by the opportunity to do something good, and get to live the brand values on the shop floor – and whilst you’re in there why not pick up a Peppermint Pedicure Set? As my colleague Alex mentioned in a piece for Retail Gazette recently, shopping conscientiously and backing brands with purpose is big news, and I suspect The Body Shop are onto a winner.

If you want proof of a brand that’s already used a bit of out of box thinking to turn things around, look no further than Waterstones. That’s right, not only a high street store, but peddler of those tomes of the dark ages that we commonly refer to as honest-to-goodness paper books. Back in April, what was seen by many as an improbable turn around was confirmed when the chain was sold to US fund manager Elliot. What has Waterstones done to become so attractive? Simply given customers a place to enjoy their latest hardback as well as to purchase it. Waterstones are now routinely equipped with cafés, some with bars, and even a pop-up cinema in one of the London branches (for short attention spans I guess?!).

As far as the high street goes, I’m a long way away from saying my goodbyes – there’s plenty of life in the old dog yet. But it’s more important than ever for brands to take the time to teach it some new tricks.

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Gary Rohloff