Will “Shopping Streets” survive COVID-19?

UK’s High Streets, Kalvestraat in Amsterdam, Champs-Elysees in Paris, Orchard Road in Singapore… I can hardly think of a big city without a main shopping street. But how are the retailers doing?

News outlet are reporting news of a doomed feature for physical stores. This article by MoneyWise actually compiled a list with companies (mostly in America) which announced closures of their physical stores. Centre for Retail Research reported that over 15,000 physical stores have been closed in 2020 (up till Nov 6, 2020) in UK alone. It’s a very gloomy outlook.

But not all is lost. Several cities in the UK has been repurposing unused retail spaces. Some were turned into leisure spaces like cinemas, bars and restaurants, while some others are turned to living spaces. It’s refurbished to everything BUT retail.

Why should there be brick and mortar stores for retail, anyway?

For the young and the tech savvy (assuming everyone who considers themselves part of the modern/young generation are able to operate WordPress at the minimum), they can start a retail business without a brick and mortar store (warehouses are not considered as stores). However, it won’t be very easy for a 60-year-old person who has been operating his/her vintage antique store for the past 40 years to simply convert their brick and mortar business to an online model (at least, it won’t be easy without help).

Besides that, there are still a lot of us who would prefer to “touch and feel” the products before investing our money on it. I used the word “investing” because this usually (in my opinion) applies to items with a higher value. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who spent EUR2,000 on a leather bag before actually having a physical look at it (then again, I haven’t got a lot of acquaintances who are part of the top 1% of society). There are also some of us who refuse to risk paying the return fees when it’s not covered by the seller.

This video from Financial Times, gave a good insight from retail store owners. Some think that the decrease of retail stores also decreased footfall (e.g. visitors), not just for the sake of the shopping streets but also for towns in general – especially for small towns with limited tourist attractions. After all, just how much more visitors can new bars, restaurants and cinemas attract? It must also be really special to attract visitors – why should I go all the way there just for a pint of beer?

On top of it all, I think a lot of us are also overlooking the social aspect of brick and mortar retail stores.  At least, I did, until the clip reminded me that for some people, physical stores can be part of one’s social routine. For example, I go to the same garden centre for my plants, and everything else that I need for my collections. I always end up having conversations (mostly about plants) with the employees there. That’s something we can’t have online. No one is going to monitor your website visits and suddenly pop out in the chat and say “Heyyyy! You’re back! How’ve you been?”. You will, however, receive endless advertisements about every new arrivals for that webshop where you bought your phone cover from. 

For now, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the brick and mortar retail stores as of yet. Yes, we’ve seen a lot of closures from big names over the pandemic, and yes, a lot of small businesses that managed to hold on so far are still trying to make ends meet. But on the brighter side, a lot of us ARE actually aware about supporting local businesses and a lot of these businesses are also aware that they need to change their business models to fit in with the current needs of people. I don’t think a lot of the big-chain stores who closed some of their doors are going to reopen anytime soon, and some famous shopping streets may see a facelift in the near future, but I also think that more independent and smaller retail business owners CAN go on with physical stores.

Additional thoughts on this: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/financial-times_will-covid-19-kill-the-uk-high-street-activity-6734434637914894336-mrCU