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The winds of change are blowing for British high streets. And for the first time in a long time, things feel fresher and more optimistic.
While last year the fall of retail titans dominated headlines, now it is news of a summer of ‘fun’ and ‘spending’. According to the British Retail Consortium when lockdown eased retail sales rose in May by the most since the Covid-19 pandemic. People have flocked to bars and restaurants to socialise, whilst footfall is steadily improving.
But there’s no denying that things are still tough, with longer-term structural shifts to the way we live and work threatening recovery.
Despite the challenges and uncertainty, I believe the future of the high street can still be bright. But we must seize the opportunity to reimagine and rebuild our towns and city centres, by putting small businesses at the heart.
Our new world will undoubtedly bring a stronger leaning towards hybrid working, online shopping and less travel. But it will also need new places and spaces to rise and enable these trends – from co-working to multi-channel shopping.
Providing opportunities for people to come together, socialise and connect in the community – albeit safely with space and ventilation – are likely to become highly valued in a society denied this fundamental need for so long.
Small businesses – across many sectors including retail, food and drink - are a big part of the solution here. These independents have always played a special role in our lives and local areas, but this relationship has become more profound over the course of the crisis.
Whether it is the gift shop that delivered treats to your relatives in lockdown, the local barista you’re now on first name terms with, or the independent restaurant that started doing a saviour meal-box or takeaway, the massive value that small businesses bring is now recognised in a powerful way.
This affection translates into support and sales. When the high street opened back up again last December, there was record spend on Small Business Saturday, with over £1 billion spent at small businesses.
Indeed, new research the campaign undertook with American Express found that almost half (46%) of small businesses have seen a rise in new customers purchasing from their business over the past six months.
Respondents also said the support they felt went beyond simply providing custom, to include smaller acts of kindness like recommending businesses to friends and family. Moreover, a further 69% of small businesses said they believe a greater sense of community spirit has developed among the small business owners themselves in their local area throughout the last year.
Local areas have certainly become a lot more important to people. When the nation was told to stay home, we rediscovered our home-ground – particularly our local high streets – in new ways.
The rise of more ‘home-workers’ undoubtedly poses a challenge for city centres to reclaim worker footfall. Again, independent businesses will become vital for these centres; serving as attraction magnets, injecting vibrancy, and reviving gaps that have appeared.
Of course, small businesses cannot regenerate towns and cities alone. Local and central Government, BIDs and LEPs, big businesses, and the local community must all play a major role to enable this. But the collaborative force of independents is a great asset to unlock, to create a sense of destination; whether it’s a pop-up market, a seasonal festival, or a new joint venture.
High streets undoubtedly need to adapt to survive, and this is somewhere else where the insight of local entrepreneurs can be harnessed too. Britain’s business owners have shown remarkable entrepreneurism and agility in the way they have pivoted to survive throughout the pandemic, particularly through using digital.
The food and drink sector has risen to the challenge here, accelerating the use of contactless payments, online ordering functionality and sales and marketing via social media.
These learnings can be amplified and shared at a town and city-level, so that digital is integrated with experiential on the high street.
By using the full force of their community spirit, digital gains and customer affection, small businesses can help to power our recovery, helping to breathe new life into our high streets.
It’s time to take a deep breath and help these business owners move forwards.