Adaptive Strategies for High Street Retailers

We’ve all read the grim headlines about the decline of our high streets. The stark reality is that the UK has lost almost 14,000 shops in 2020 – an increase of 24% on last year.

High street retailers are facing an unprecedented amount of challenges – not only battling against online competitors, but also trying to combat the impact of Covid-19. A study by the Centre For Retail Research shows the UK’s non-food retailers have lost more than £9 billion in sales this year due to the pandemic.

High street

© Jono Photography /


What challenges does the high street face?

Apart from the competition from online retailers and the Covid-19 lockdowns, high street retailers are struggling because consumers have less disposable income than they did 12 months ago.

Around 750,000 people have already lost their jobs during the coronavirus crisis. According to statistics for the third quarter of 2020, 1.62 million people are currently unemployed in the UK. Analysts predict the number could hit 2.6 million by mid-2021, accounting for 7.5% of the adult population.

In addition, out-of-town shopping malls and retail parks are having a negative impact on high street retailers, who are facing their biggest challenge in living memory. Statistics published by Statista revealed a 48% decline in footfall this year, compared with 2019.

The high street is much more than just a parade of shops and it’s important for our bricks and mortar stores to get back on track. Town centres enable social integration and provide a location for people to participate in various activities. Losing more shops would be unthinkable.


How can high streets fight back?

Studies suggest our high street retailers must adapt their strategies to make them more appealing to the public. They need to set business goals to help with instore sales and put a long-term masterplan in place for a healthier high street environment. The key to delivering these goals is ensuring the masterplan is supported by the local authority’s planning policy. It must provide a coordinated approach to make the whole street a positive place to work and visit.

Keeping everything up to date requires continual liaison between the retailers and the local authority, in particular, to determine what funding is available to aid any improvements. Following ten months of hardship as a result of Covid-19, the majority of small and medium independent businesses aren’t going to have a lot of money for shop refurbishments. However, improving your retail premises is an important way of attracting more customers.

Online retailers can never compete with the real-life consumer experience of walking into a brick-and-mortar store, where the sights, smells and general atmosphere make it so exhilarating. It can be a social occasion that people enjoy with friends – something online stores can’t replicate.


Importance of a welcoming shopfront

Plenty of research has been carried out to gauge the importance of having welcoming retail premises that will turn passers-by into customers. A study by Fredrik Lange, of Stockholm School of Economics, in Sweden, found retail window displays motivated consumers to “engage in the shopping experience”. They may not have a specific shopping goal in mind, but they are open to “influence and inspiration” from window dressing.

Attractive shopfronts provide a “source of communication between a brand and a passer-by”, giving clues as to what they can find inside. A large amount of information can be conveyed quickly with a good window display, such as the style of the store, new lines, current trends, the price range, the shop’s atmosphere and company values. This is why the look of your shop is crucial to getting back on track after the challenges of 2020.


Why is it important to keep our high street?

The high street plays an important role in community life and is vital for a town or city’s economic success. Retail is a large part of this, but strategies can be adapted to attract people through other initiatives.

Contrary to common belief, street markets attract more people into a town centre, who will then spend money at the regular shops, rather than taking away from other traders.

The key to boosting our British high street economy means gearing the whole shopping event towards convenience and creating a positive customer experience.


What is the way forward?

Analysts suggest reusing vacant retail units and department stores in new ways and building on what already exists to create a successful mix of activities on the high street. Ideas include turning them into a community hub, an activity centre with soft play areas, a trampoline park, a hair and beauty salon, or an internet cafe.

Just because they are designated retail space doesn’t mean they can’t be used for something else, as long as the council planning department has the foresight to approve the change of use. Retain the existing community value and then enhance it through a process of significant restructuring and change.

Use data insight to support high street businesses, treating it as a tool for growth, rather than as a cost. Investing in technology to help manage data is just that, an investment, and it shouldn’t be considered an unnecessary expenditure.

Technology can eliminate some of the tedious and costly manual tasks, such as supply chain optimisation work, so business owners can focus more on creating a fantastic experience for customers. Study the data you have collected to understand the current trends, spot new possibilities and understand potential outcomes.

When marketers better understand consumer behaviour, preferences and emotions, it affords great opportunities to gear your products and services towards what you know people actually want.

The aim is to make the high street a model for sustainable living and public wellbeing. It means establishing a flourishing culture for work, supporting cultural and civic life and fostering social inclusion and interaction.


Traffic light system

Retailers and supermarkets have adapted to the “new normal” during the pandemic by introducing the “traffic light system“. Earlier this year, it was common practice for stores to have a member of staff standing outside, manually managing the queue, to make sure the store didn’t get overcrowded. Then, retailers who needed to control customer access began installing the latest traffic light solution, removing the need for an employee to manage the queue.

The traffic lights are usually operated by a sensor and count the number of shoppers and staff entering or leaving the premises. When the green light is on, it means people can enter the store safely, but if the red light comes on, nobody else can enter without breaching social distancing guidelines. In some cases, an alarm will go off if someone tries to enter when the red light is on.

This is just one example of an adaptive strategy in the high street and shows how retailers can evolve to make the best of a given situation.

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