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What's going to happen to the high street?

'A high street worth of shops closed every 24 hours in the first half of 2021.' Headline figures like this are hardly painting an optimistic view when it comes to the future of our high streets.

Nearly 9,000 shops closed in just six months this year, according to The Local Data Company, largely due to the combination of the pandemic and the shift to online shopping.

But this is only half the story. Yes, the number of businesses in cities has shrunk by 4%, but when you head away from city centres it's a different picture. Commuter towns have only seen a 3% decrease and in villages the decline is even less, at 2%.

Other reports suggest that, as we increasingly adopt a 'hybrid' lifestyle of partly working from home, our local high streets could actually end up benefiting from the side effects of the pandemic. More people working from home means more people shopping locally during the week and that means a boom to local business.

According to research from Barclays Corporate Banking, local high streets could see 17,000 new stores open over the next 12 months thanks to our new hybrid working models. Not only that, but around 18% of retail businesses with 10 or more employees are looking at community store openings.

Can the high street evolve into a destination?

There's no question that our shopping habits, and our high streets, are undergoing significant changes. But what do local traders need to offer to keep customers coming back?

'The high street must evolve and modernise with the changing world in which we live and work. High streets should become a place to live, work and socialise with more specialist and boutique stores,' said UKBF founder Richard Osborne (Ozzy).

Looking around at some of the UK's most successful high streets, it's not hard to find inspiration. Bristol has long been associated with its thriving local areas and a local consultation noted that there are 47 places considered to be 'high streets' across the city.

One of the most popular is North Street, with independent traders who think creatively to increase footfall into their stores. The recent Halloween Trail is a brilliant example, where younger shoppers had to spot ghosts in shop windows and then go inside to collect a sticker to add to their sheet.

The annual festival, UPFEST, is another initiative that brings local people to the high street. The festival is a celebration of local artists, stalls from independent traders and food producers, live music and an arts trail.

This idea of making high streets more of a destination feels like a fitting vision for our post-pandemic future. But does this mean the end of city centres completely?

There's been much debate about this on the UKBF forum, and @thetiger2015 thinks the solution is for chains and independent traders to come together to create a better shopping destination.

'They should create hybrid shopping areas. Big retailers, with markets in the centre for start-ups and fresh food retailers. Create a circular experience that allows you to hop around shops and cross the market area. Everything should be centrally focused, to create a pleasant shopping experience and a day out for everyone.'

Council support for independents

Creative thinking from traders is one thing, but what do they need in the way of support from the local council to make sure their efforts are a success?

One subject that comes up regularly on the UKBF forums is the problem of parking in order to visit the local shops and restaurants.

'Free parking will be seen as hugely important moving forward, it takes away a huge annoyance for most, and introduces a much more relaxed experience,' @MBE2017 commented.

This is a view that seems to be backed up by local traders. Last Christmas, 75% of businesses said they wanted councils to introduce a car park cost-cutting scheme to help them survive the festive period.

Many councils responded with short periods where shoppers could park for free during certain times.

Other councils have gone one step further in a bid to boost trade, creating pedestrianised streets so restaurants have more outdoor space for diners.

This was something that councils in London's Soho, Chelsea and the West End allowed for a short time when hospitality reopened after the lockdown was lifted. It was a huge success.

Long-term support is needed

Schemes like these prove that councils need to listen to the needs of traders to come up with workable solutions. And they raise the question of whether more formalised models need to be introduced to support local shops in the longer term.

@Irontoe believes that in his local shopping area, council involvement shouldn't just be about short-term fixes. Posting in The death of the High Street - has it been exaggerated? he said:

'Giving more power to local councils or chambers of commerce to stop the proliferation of any one sort of business could help.

'Our local high street has far too many estate agents, hairdressers, fast food outlets and charity shops. If you could replace half of those with niche or specialist shops I think the whole town would benefit.'

What do you think? Is there hope for the High Street? Have you used initiatives to make your shop more of a destination? Leave a comment below to get the discussion started.
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ChrisGoodfellow
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