Our data reveals that the perception that trading conditions have worsened over the last five years is more common among retail chains, at a rate of 62%, compared to 54% of independent businesses.
What does this tell us about the fate of large retail chains, based on the experiences of many others in recent years? Are some chains in specific sectors doomed to failure on the Great British high street? And is the high street slowly dying or is it merely evolving and changing with the times?
With the increasing numbers of big-name businesses going into administration or simply disappearing from the high street altogether, now is the time to be seriously considering these questions and looking forward to the changes and developments that will shape the high street in the upcoming decades.
Breaking down the survey
The B2B market research included in this article was carried out between 31 January and 5 February 2020 among more than 500 UK adults. The respondents were all senior decision-makers within UK retail businesses.
The survey was designed to be fully representative of businesses, having adjusted for location, business size, business maturity and business type, in order to paint a detailed national picture of the high street.
Survey respondents breakdown:
How have trading conditions changed in the last five years?
Without a doubt, trading conditions have become much tougher in recent years.
How have the nation’s high streets altered in response? A commonly held view is that UK high streets are becoming increasingly homogenised.
It’s certainly true that a majority of our survey respondents (65%) believe there have been significant changes in the types of businesses operating on the high street. A further 66% stated that more independent outfits have closed, only to be replaced by chains.
Retail giants come crashing down to earth
While our survey reveals that more business leaders see chains replacing failing independent outfits, the fall of retail behemoths is a lot more noticeable, simply due to the wider scope of their operations in towns and cities across the country.
Difficult trading conditions over the past five years have led to the closure of many businesses, or, on several significant occasions, the administrators have been called in to find buyers for one-time stalwarts of the high street.
That being said, this issue started more than five years ago. The current predicament faced by high street businesses can be traced back to the collapse of Woolworths in 2008, during the recession.
More big names have fallen from grace in recent years, across a number of sectors. These include:
The BBC reported in early January 2020 that the final 79 Mothercare baby care and accessories stores would shut their doors for the last time on 16 February 2020.
This former bastion of retail exiting the high street meant the loss of 2,500f jobs across the country.
The fact that supermarkets and fast fashion retailers could beat Mothercare’s prices on babycare essentials, such as nappies and clothes, partly explains the retailer’s increasing difficulties and eventual closure.
Women’s fashion retailer Bonmarché entered administration in December 2020. Bonmarché had 225 stores at the time of its administration, with 1,500 staff.
Regis, the hairdressing chain’s owner, went into administration in October 2019. Up to 220 salons were placed at risk of closure, with as many as 1,200 staff potentially set to lose their jobs as a result.
But what are the main reasons for such closures? Our survey has revealed the key reasons for the challenging trading conditions faced by high street businesses over the past five years.
Commenting on these closures, Robert Scrafton, co-founder of London Retail Services, says: “Ever since I can remember, the UK retail sector has been in trouble. Or so the losers have always said. But today, even the winners are saying it and the great British High Street really does seem to be teetering on the edge.”
What has brought about the changes to the high street?
It appears rental market conditions and Brexit uncertainty – both issues related to political decisions – have contributed the most to the challenging conditions faced by the high street.
Business rate changes have been felt most by chain businesses, perhaps because they have more branches than independent stores, and because they compete for the most lucrative locations in town and city-centre high streets and popular shopping centres. Interestingly, far fewer independent outfits consider changes to rental prices as a negative.
More than a third (34%) of independent shops agreed that the rent hikes had a negative impact on their business, 10% fewer than chains. To compound this, 15% of independent stores considered the rent increases as having a positive impact on their business, while only 8% of chains agreed.
Why is this?
A potential reason could be that independent stores foresee that chain businesses will struggle to manage rising rent bills across their range of stores. These retailers are nimbler, with potentially less complicated supply chains, so they can react much quicker to rising rent bills simply by improving supply chain efficiencies.
Independent stores may also believe, should rising rent bills force big chain businesses to struggle financially, there will be more vacant lots for them to expand their high street real estate.
Scrafton adds: “Landlords are turning a blind eye to the blindingly obvious, as they insist on continual rental increases – or empty units – so that they do not have to write down the long-term value of their assets.
Landlords have long been putting off the inevitable but thankfully, there are now signs that things are starting to change, and deals are being done – albeit through gritted teeth and still much too little and late.”
NerdWallet’s survey found that the business decision-makers it polled certainly believed that rental hikes had negatively affected the Great British high street. Some 40% of all businesses surveyed cited that rental prices and Brexit uncertainty have had a negative impact on the high street – compared to just 33% saying the same for business rate hikes and just 10% for minimum wage increases.
Rowland Gee, co-author of The Retail Start-Up Book, says: “Councils now, with very few exceptions, don’t own high street real estate, but should now be given powers under an amended or reformed Landlord and Tenant Act, to force commercial landlords to ‘release’ their properties. There are thousands of retail start-ups with new and fresh ideas, ready to enter the market. Councils should be empowered (under a new statute) to inform landlords to let their long-standing vacant shops at ‘best rent’ offered.”
High street homogeny – A sign of the future
As mentioned earlier, 66% of the decision-makers surveyed stated that more independent outfits had closed and were ultimately replaced by chains over the past five years.
The potential impact of this is that high streets across the country have become almost identical, filled with the same big chains, rather than independent local businesses.
Commenting on this, Preston Benson, founder of The Really Local Group, says: “For decades, the high street has evolved with the developer’s or investor’s interests in mind. Retail units, often an afterthought in mixed-use schemes, have been ‘auctioned off’ to those occupiers with the strongest perceived covenant or to those willing to pay the highest headline rent, and sadly, many of these retail-led developments displaced existing neighbourhood businesses and networks.
“This ‘top-down’ approach has led to identikit high streets, filled with standard chains and unfulfilling experiences. Without customisation, a bland and boring experience is often the result, and the poor December ONS retail figures are evidence that consumers’ expectations are not being met.”
Declining footfall on our high streets – is Brexit to blame?
In our survey, 38% of businesses agreed that, since the EU referendum, there has been declining footfall in stores and consumer spending volumes have fallen on the UK high street.
Brexit may not be the underlying symptom of the malaise that the British high street is currently facing, but it is definitely a contributing factor to the current state of British retail. 2019 was the worst year for store closures since 2010, with Brexit uncertainty and its knock-on effect on the pound surely playing a big part.
NerdWallet’s survey also found that:
- Almost half (49%) of all businesses surveyed said Brexit and the declining value of the pound has increased the running costs of their business since the EU referendum,
- Some 44% of businesses have invested more heavily in stock and resources because of Brexit, while more than a third (37%) of small businesses and almost half (47%) of medium-sized businesses cited Brexit uncertainty as having the most negative impact out of any government programme over the past five years.
Increased business running costs
We asked: “Has Brexit and the declining value of the pound increased the running costs of your business since the EU referendum?”
A disproportionate percentage of London businesses (65%) answered ‘yes’ to this question.
It’s feasible that for London-based businesses, being so close to Westminster has brought Brexit mismanagement into sharper focus than for businesses located throughout the UK’s regions.
In total, almost half of businesses agreed that Brexit and the declining value of the pound has had an impact on their trading, with uncertainty causing 44% to heavily invest in stock and resources – perhaps another factor in the increasing store closures we see blighting the high street.
Despite signs of gloom, following a conclusive general election, there have been clear signs of a recovery in the UK economy.
The February 2020 edition of IHS Markit and the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply survey reported that business growth had increased in January 2020, the first month of expansion since August 2019.
The IHS Purchasing Managers Index also showed increased staff hires; this recovery is most likely a reaction to the Conservative party’s significant election victory.
Businesses might be feeling a renewed sense of confidence as typically a stronger government allows faster political decision making, causing retail companies to be more willing to spend in an environment of positivity and clarity.
But the Brexit saga is far from over. The UK left the EU in January 2020 and is in a transition period until December 2020. In the meantime, the UK and EU will have to iron out a definitive trade arrangement, in order to complete the UK’s Brexit process.
In the meantime, and even after trade deals are ratified with non-EU members – potentially China and the US – uncertainty could remain the strongest sentiment in the UK economy.
What impact have rising business rates had?
A third (33%) of all businesses surveyed said rising business rates have had a negative impact on their business. Despite this, 38% of micro retail operations say increased rates have had a negative impact on their business. These businesses are the retailers most opposed to rising business rates, concerned that they won’t be able to keep up with rising business costs.
Sajid Javid, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced in October 2019 that business rates would rise by 1.7% in April 2020. The British Retail Consortium said this would mean retailers would face an increase of £137 million in bills across the board.
Mr Javid resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer on 13 February 2020, having failed to deliver on this policy and, with a Spring Budget looming on the horizon, there are many questions left to answer.
Some of the following questions include, what are businesses hoping to see in the Spring Budget and what changes do businesses think will transform the UK high street?
The Retail Start-Up Book’s Rowland Gee continues: “Local communities have shunned high streets, because local infrastructure and transport links have been cut or reduced, parking is expensive and restricted and the variety, or mix of attractive retail options and essential services have fallen away.
“Too many shops have been allowed to remain empty and quality places to socialise (vital), morning, afternoon and evening have virtually disappeared. Human connection is fading away. Many towns and villages are now being left without banks and post offices.”
Will online shopping kill the high street?
We asked businesses: “Are you worried that the growing shift to ecommerce is a threat to the longevity of your business?”
While 44% answered ‘yes’, micro businesses were the least concerned – just 38% agreed that they were concerned about the rise of ecommerce and the changing shopping preferences of consumers.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has some revealing data, tracking internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales. In December 2019, 21.3% of sales were made online. This represents a sharp increase from when figures were first recorded in November 2006 – back then, just 2.8% of shopping was carried out online.
The ratio of online shopping as a percentage of total shopping sales volumes in the UK continues to rise.
In November 2015, the ratio was 15.5%, but by December 2019, over a fifth of shopping was carried out online.
Furthermore, with a planned overhaul of broadband infrastructure, including policies to increase fibre broadband access across the length and breadth of the UK, remote areas will find online shopping easier than ever. This is likely to mean that online shopping’s popularity will continue to increase.
Now more than ever, retailers are heavily invested in ecommerce to try to keep up with these advances. There is a constant race taking place for companies to improve their online customer experience – whether it’s delivery speed, ease of website navigation or availability of live customer care.
How have changes to the political landscape affected the high street?
Since 2015, there have been numerous changes to both the leadership of political parties and the personnel in the Prime Minister’s offices.
This section analyses the impact that these changes have had on retail businesses in the UK.
We asked: “Over the last five years, have the following changes had a positive or negative impact on your business?”
More than a third (34%) of small businesses have stated that changes in political leadership had a positive effect on their business, only 13% of chain businesses agreed.
A quarter (25%) of chains thought that political changes were negative for their business.
Theresa May’s trials and tribulations in ratifying a Brexit deal during her three-year tenure was one of the main aspects of Brexit uncertainty, which has had a widespread impact on the economy.
With the UK enduring sustained political deadlock for an extended period of time, many deals were put on ice, and retail brands were unwilling to commit to high levels of spending.
But, thanks to Boris Johnson’s dramatic election victory in the December snap election, he was finally able to ratify his own version of the Brexit deal so the UK could leave the EU in January 2020.
The election victory seemingly led to a recovery in sentiment, the so-called ‘Boris Bounce’. Data for the aftermath of the UK’s departure from the EU remains forthcoming, but many hope this revival in fortunes will continue throughout the year.
However, as we’ve learnt throughout the Brexit process, nothing is set in stone.
Was 2019 a historically bad year for the high street?
2019 was the worst year for the high street since 2010, according to figures reported by the Retail Gazette. Sales across Britain’s high streets decreased by 0.1%, contrasted with growth of 1.2% in 2018. From these figures, it’s easy to understand the concerns felt by businesses over the fate of the high street.
Another key indicator for the health of the retail sector is the number of store closures over a year period. The first half of 2019 was the worst year for closures since 2010, with 1,234 stores shutting, up from 1,123 the previous year. The chart below shows which sectors were hit the hardest.
Source: PwC, data from retail chains with five stores minimum
What has been the definitive cause of the decline of the high street in 2019? Well, there is no single, definitive cause. A combination of all the factors that have impacted on the high street in the past five years could be said to have contributed significantly – the increased minimum wage, continually rising business rates, rising rents, and the ongoing rise of ecommerce and Brexit, to name a few.
With the problems affecting the high street thoroughly explored, let’s now take a look at the changes we can expect to see on the UK high street in the near future.
Shoots of hope – what businesses want from the Spring Budget
The government’s Spring Budget is expected to have a big impact on all areas of the economy, the retail sector being no exception.
With Sajid Javid resigning less than four weeks before the Budget, will a change of personnel in one of the great offices of state finally give high street businesses what they’re looking for?
- Assurances that current EU citizens in the UK will be able to remain in the country after Brexit
- A freeze on minimum wage rises
- A reduction to business rates
- Greater investment in regional and national Infrastructure (both physical and digital)
Encouragingly, businesses are against a proposed freeze to minimum wage rises. Of all businesses surveyed, 56% were against the idea, with as many as 65% of chains opposed.
Chains rely on a steady supply of employees who only work for a short period of time, such as students and weekend workers. This means they need to make working for them as attractive as possible.
As a result, a rise in the minimum wage could keep the workforce more engaged in retail work, as it could reward them with a fairer wage over time.
In addition, well-paid staff tend to stick around for longer, reducing high staff turnover- something that all high street organisations would appreciate.
Almost two-thirds (63%) of businesses are looking for assurances that EU nationals can remain in the UK after Brexit.
Retail brands currently rely on a large number of EU nationals to fulfil staffing requirements.
ONS data shows that the number of EU nationals working in the UK has grown rapidly in recent years. In December 2012, 1.44 million EU nationals were working in the UK, but by December 2018, just six years later, this number had risen to 2.27 million.
With such a heavy reliance on EU national workers in the UK, it’s clear that an assurance from the government that EU nationals currently residing in the UK can stay in the country would be a great relief for retail businesses and those workers themselves.
Almost three-quarters (72%) of businesses are hoping for the Spring Budget to prioritise local and national infrastructure, specifically to improve logistical efficiencies and digital communications.
Many retail businesses will be pleased that the planned HS2 train line will go ahead. Boris Johnson announced that construction would continue on this project, with a finishing date of 2028-31 for Phase 1 and 2035-40 for Phase 2 in sight.
HS2 will connect London and other regional hubs such as Birmingham, Leeds, and Manchester. It hopes to encourage economic growth and could help high street businesses to access more commercial opportunities, but the real impact of this project won’t be evident until it is eventually completed.
In terms of digital infrastructure, businesses may hope to see improvements to the UK’s broadband connectivity.
In January 2020, communications regulator Ofcom set out new proposals to roll out faster and more reliable fibre broadband across the country, which is set to have many benefits for consumers and businesses, particularly those in rural areas.
Improved connectivity will allow more secure and faster payments and data transfers, so businesses can collaborate with partners outside their localities more easily and efficiently, and consumers can browse the internet and make payments more comfortably.
Will this result in a further rise of online shopping and a decline in the number of people shopping on high streets? Or will high street brands adapt to these technological changes and adopt new techniques to survive?
How are high street brands adapting to the changing nature of the high street?
We asked over 500 retail business leaders the marketing techniques, technologies and improvements they plan to invest in over the next 24 months, with hopes that they will enable their stores to keep up with the changing nature of demand.
It’s interesting to note that 39% of all businesses said they aimed to release a new website in the next 24 months.
Our survey also revealed that 44% of businesses are concerned for the longevity of their business, with the growing shift towards ecommerce.
Could it be that, as we see more and more purchases made online, high street stores become more of a window-shopping experience, and hubs for experiential events and social spaces, as opposed to being places where we do the majority of our actual shopping?
Some 41% of businesses plan to release a customer-facing app, a technique that can help stave off the rise of online only businesses, with brands aiming to remain competitive with online stores.
Another way high-street shops can become more competitive is by making the shopping experience as simple and as frictionless as possible, just like online shopping. Our research found that 59% of brands said they plan to invest in new payment technologies to make it easier or faster for customers to pay for items, in an effort to make high street shopping as streamlined as possible.
When looking to fund technology changes, a business loan could support retailers to fund big business changes, and accounting software could help them make their business more streamlined.
However, there is scope for the shopping experience to become more interactive.
Gee explains: “The brick-and-mortar customer shopping experience should be as easy, smart and clear as an online retailer. b8ta is a retail company, founded in San Francisco, with a chain of retail stores which serve as hi-tech presentation centres for audio/visual, health, home, kids, lifestyle and outdoor products.
“Immediately next to every item is a tablet that tells you everything you need to know about the product. If a customer then wants to buy, they can either take it away with them, have it delivered, or go to the site later and buy it then.”
Which technologies will you invest in over the next 24 months?
NerdWallet found that business decision-makers it surveyed were interested in new technologies, with customer-facing apps (40%) and new websites (39%) being areas they were most likely to consider investing in.
Meanwhile, 33% of respondents would place their faith in the internet of things to serve as a key part of their growth strategy and 32% hoped that adopting big data technology will turn around their fortunes.
Over a quarter (26%) aim to implement artificial intelligence systems and 23% will invest in virtual reality, with 19% turning to augmented reality, in the hope that these innovative technologies are the way forward.
Cashless and staffless stores – the future of the high street
An example of a high street store that has made the shopping experience easier through innovative payment technologies is Amazon Go; this online retail giant’s attempt to enter the competitive supermarket industry.
Amazon Go aims to compete with established grocery and supermarket brands by offering a smoother shopping experience through the use of various technologies.
Amazon Go uses many cameras and sensors to track what customers take off the shelves, and surprisingly, the stores have no checkouts or payment technology. Instead, consumers pay for their items after leaving the shop via their credit cards, which are held on file.
As the stores employ turnstiles at the entrances, which are operated and opened by an app downloaded by customers, Amazon Go doesn’t need to employ any staff.
Most high street businesses may not have the flexibility to follow such innovative processes as Amazon, currently the third richest company in the world. Instead, they may wish to follow more achievable marketing strategies to get more customers through the door.
In-store events proved to be the most popular marketing strategy that high street decision-makers said they will continue to invest in over the coming 24 months.
“It’s no longer good enough to simply have a range of products in a store and expect the customer to come to you,” says Doug Mutter, managing director of VPZ. “Retail stores need to expand beyond this. For example, we at VPZ have started hosting vape nights, where new and existing customers can come together and speak with experts, try out new ranges and get access to exclusive offers. The store becomes not just a shop, but part of the community.”
Our survey found that more than half (54%) of all business will follow an in-store events strategy, while 58% of chains and large businesses also plan to adopt in-store events and 57% of London businesses said they would follow suit.
This willingness to invest in in-store events shows that retail businesses have realised that, in order to attract a higher footfall on the high street, they need to go above and beyond expectations and provide a unique customer experience that cannot be found online.
Here’s an example of the power of in-store events, which encourage people to treat high street shopping as more of a social event.
Glossier, a New York fashion, beauty, arts, and lifestyle brand, opened a short-term London pop-up event that caused mass hysteria when it first opened in November 2019. After record-breaking footfall, it decided to extend its London presence and will remain open for the rest of 2020.
Many store events will revolve around technology – 23% of businesses said they plan to implement virtual reality in store. Another 19% will explore augmented reality, while 33% will use the internet of things to create more interactive shopping experiences, with things like smart devices in store.
Whichever way in-store events are put together, it’s clear that high street businesses know things have to change if they want to remain competitive.
High street businesses have not lost faith in the power of good public relations to boost brand perception. Some 44% of all businesses said they planned to use public and media relations strategies in the next 24 months to help promote a positive perception of their brand and drive sales.
London-based businesses are most likely to use this marketing tactic in pursuit of growth. As many as 62% of businesses based in the capital feel the need to boost the public perception of their brand, most likely because of the competitiveness of retail in the capital and the general decline in footfall recently.
Influencer marketing also looks to continue its popularity. The rise of influencer marketing has picked up speed in recent years due to the continued growth of social media, and brands are noticing that consumers trust the opinion of social media influencers who have large followings. This is why 35% of retail companies plan to use the services of an influencer in the next 24 months.
“[Glossier’s] Floral Street, Covent Garden shop knows all too well the importance of building connections, both online and in store. Defined Instagram (social media is crucial for start-ups) places in the shop are mobbed,” says Gee.
“So, not only has its creative team designed areas intended to spark conversation between consumers (mirrors facing one another on a make-up stand, for example), but it has also ensured that the funky shop design has taken its inspiration from London style.”
Improving store experiences could be a key step to transforming the fortunes of the high street. UK retail operations appear to agree:
With 63% of high street businesses making improvements to their products and customer experiences in the last five years, it’s apparent that retail businesses are feeling the heat of the increased competition, which has come with the reduced numbers of shoppers on the high street.
If businesses can retain the trust of shoppers, they may be more willing to visit a tangible high street store than navigate the occasionally overwhelming surplus of choices offered by the world wide web.
Trust seems to be a key issue for high street retail businesses to get on top of, with more than half stating they had invested in improvement to their brand image so that it better reflects the changing preferences of consumers. This could tie into the fact that more consumers than ever before are environmentally aware.
Ethical consumerism is a change that’s being driven by the emerging generation of consumers – Generation Z.
The consumer of today is looking to trace where their products come from. Whether it’s the provenance of supermarket meat – down to the very farm it came from – or consumers wanting assurances that technology products and clothes aren’t produced in poor working conditions, the modern consumer is increasingly ethical.
In-store improvements can also include experiential shopping experiences. Primark has recently opened in-store beauty salons across a select number of their stores, in an attempt to encourage more customers to visit their high street branches.
Manchester city centre’s new Primark beauty studio, unsurprisingly for the budget retailer, offers beauty treatments at rock-bottom prices. Shoppers can enjoy treatments from as little as £3. One of the three Primark locations with new in-store beauty salons, the cut-price retailer enticed shoppers to visit the salon with a celebrity opening by Love Island contestants, also showing the power of influencer culture and marketing.
In our poll, businesses say they have invested in the following improvements over the last five years:
- 54% have invested in improving the décor of the store, to make for a better customer experience.
- 63% undertook improvements to their products and customer experience to stand out from competitors.
- 37% initiated a loyalty scheme to encourage repeat business.
- 59% invested in new payment technology, to make it easier and faster for customers to pay.
- 56% ensured their products are more eco-friendly, to appeal to customers who are environmentally minded.
- 58% have used assets to create a brand image that better reflects the changing preferences of their customers.
The high street is evolving
The narrative that the high street is dying has been prevalent for more than a decade, especially since the rise of online shopping in the late 2000s.
However, despite over 20% of UK shopping now taking place online, there will always be a need for physical brick-and-mortar stores – as long as the social element of shopping remains, and the level of customer service in store is unmatched by online retailers.
The atmosphere of dread on the high street is driven by the rising numbers of big names struggling and going out of business. Yet, as big retailers go out of business, new players emerge. The market favours adaptability and innovation, with new businesses responding to changing consumer demand.
Just look at the FTSE 100, and how it has changed since the 1980s. From its launch in 1984, fewer than a third of the original 100 constituent enterprises from the FTSE 100 remain in business in 2020, and the index no longer is a who’s who in British retail. Global retailers feature heavily.
Brexit is on the verge of being finalised, and a majority government now has the power to make significant legislative changes. Deadlock has left at long last, and there is an air of optimism on the high street.
At NerdWallet, we share this optimism and look forward to seeing the high street evolve further in the next few years.
We expect the biggest changes to be driven by small, micro and independent businesses, who are most nimble and have the greatest ability to adjust to the changing nature of the high street.
They are likely to do so, with a unique value proposition and an understanding of what drives the new generation of shoppers.
Third-party data provided is based on information that is publicly available at the time of writing. NerdWallet does not accept, for any reason, responsibility for the content on third-party sites.
The research was carried out via an online survey by an independent market research agency, which is a member of the Market Research Society (MRS) Company Partner Service.
Its MRS membership means that it adheres to strict guidelines regarding all phases of research, including research design and data collection; communicating with respondents; conducting fieldwork; analysis and reporting; data storage.
The B2B market research was carried out between 31 January and 5 February 2020 among more than 500 UK adults. The respondents here are senior decision-makers within UK retail businesses.
Image source: Getty Images