Cultural shift required to save city centres

The threat to the UK’s high streets will continue in to 2024 as the threat of online retailing operations continues.

Jon Munnery insolvency and company restructuring expert at UK Liquidators, part of the Begbies Traynor Group  has said the way in which the country’s shops which are under a continued transformation will require a cultural shift if city centres are to be transformed.

“The retail landscape is ever changing and 2024 looks to see no end to the challenges faced by the high street as retailers face the prospect of tempting customers into their stores at a time where consumer confidence is low and discretionary spending power squeezed,” he explained. “The shift from in-store to online is nothing new; neither is the shift from the high street to out of town retail parks. It is clear that the way we shop has been in transition for many years, however, the bad news for the high street is that what these changes have in common is that they have been consistently taking footfall away from our town and city centres.”

However, Munnery added the high street is vital for those unable to access out of town retail parks and those without the means – or desire – to conduct every retail transaction online.

“If we want to future-proof our high streets, this will require us to change how we view them and what we expect our town and city centres to offer,” he continued. “In the long-term this is likely to mean a shift from away from being places of strictly retail, to leisure, entertainment, and even housing.

Looking to the year ahead Munnery said there are six key issues for the country’s high streets.

The first is in-store experiences – “As customers increasingly look online to get their retail fix, expect retailers to move towards offering an omnichannel experience which seamlessly merges the online and the offline world,” he said. “In practice this could include offering same-day delivery to stores with returns able to be handled immediately. This would allow a customer to order a dress online in the evening, pick this up in store on their lunch break, try it on in the in-store changing rooms, and make the decision to keep or return the item there and then.

“This blends the convenience of online with the benefits of an in-person shopping experience, allowing customers to complete each stage of the purchasing process via their preferred channel.”

There will be changes to the payments and checkout process. “While contactless payment via card and mobile have become widely accepted, it is expected that further changes are on the way when it comes to how we complete our in-person transactions,” Munnery explained. “QR code payments have already become mainstream across certain parts of Asia, in many places removing the need to queue to pay in a designated place. Instead, QR codes located across the store allow for payment to be made quickly and conveniently.”

He said the backlash against fast fashion looks set to continue with a company’s  commitment to improving their sustainability credentials becoming a “must-have” rather than simply a “nice-to-have”.

“An increased focus on ethical concerns means retailers will have to be more transparent when it comes to their supply chains and the environmental, as well as the social impact, their products have,” Munnery continued. “On a practical level this could mean an increased demand for second hand goods, a focus on repairing rather than replacing, through to a demand for responsibility sourced products and materials.”

On price Munnery said retailers will need to ensure they understand their customers pressure points and tailor their offerings to accommodate these.

“As budgets become tighter, buying decisions become more considered,” he added. “This is likely to impact those retailers who cater towards the discretionary spending part of the market where customers have the ability to delay the purchase until confidence returns.”

“ For any successful business, changing customer expectations mean a willingness and ability to adapt to the changing marketplace in order to stay relevant; the high street is no different,” Munnery said. “A failure to adapt can quickly see any business brought to the brink as customers take their trade elsewhere. 2024 could be a great year for those agile enough to cater for what the customer wants and in the manner the customer wants.”

Munnery explained in order for the high street to flourish, it will need to tap into its strengths and capitalise on the inherent advantages it has over online platforms.

“While shoppers are increasingly comfortable getting their retail fix online, there are certain things that simply cannot be replicated virtually, such as meeting up with friends for a meal, going for a coffee with a colleague, or taking the kids bowling,” he said. “While shopping behaviours may have changed over the years, the way we want to interact with family and friends remains, and the high street is in a prime position to capitalise on this need as we enter 2024.”

“The high street is not dead, but it may be being reborn,” Munnery concluded. “Any reinvigoration of the high street is going to take time and will require a cultural shift in how we view and use our town and city centre spaces.

“It is unlikely 2024 will see the widespread changes needed to bring our high streets back to their former glory, but in an ever-changing environment the high street is unlikely to stay still.”