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

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4 Comments

  • mmhesse
    Posted November 25, 2020 at 2:50 pm 0Likes

    I completely agree with you on visiting a brick & mortar store when it comes to clothing retail. One there is something about spending the day trying on clothes and having some fun with it when shopping for a special occasion. Then there is also the hassle of having to return an item because it just does not fit right or look right on. If tried it on in the store would not have purchased it. I am with you being able to have the friendly greeting from an employee as well as a nice conversation with them, it can make a person’s day better on both sides having that interaction.

  • Lowry Hazlewood
    Posted December 1, 2020 at 10:45 am 0Likes

    As someone from the UK I think you have written really accurately about the closure of physical stores on UK high streets. This is something I have noticed now for years in my home city, that more and more shops have been closing and are being replaced by boarded up windows, for sale signs, or even different shops which inevitably don’t survive the high street environment and are closed again within a number of months or even weeks. I think it’s also interesting that you write about the pandemic as this inevitably affects all countries and their online spending habits. However I do agree with you that for larger purchases, physical shops are still necessary and these won’t be lost any time soon. Overall a very interesting read!

  • kevinsousa
    Posted December 9, 2020 at 5:38 pm 0Likes

    This has been a trend that is being put more into picture with this pandemic. Generally, stores as a physical place to go are not rare, but becoming more and more so. I think you are very right in bringing these issues up, because as much as for the general customer it is just a question of “Where am I gonna get it”, for employees and employers “How are they going to get it?” might be a more urgent question. So many childhood stores that are closed, just to re-open some new concept art store, just for it to close again in 2 months. Seems like a draining cycle:(

  • Camiel_AMS
    Posted December 17, 2020 at 3:31 pm 0Likes

    I do agree that there is something inherently more personal about visiting a physical store, especially non big-chain stores, and this is something that makes every city stand out from the other. As mentioned in other comments, the pandemic unfortunately only increases the speed at which these (mostly local) are being forced to shut their doors temporarily, and, more often than not, for good. For me personally, although going to a physical store is an experience not (yet) able to be reproduced on the web, online shopping is so much more convenient for buying shoes for instance, I know what size I need and I just search a load of sites for the pair I really want, and even where they are the least expensive. I do however really hope that once ‘normality’ has been resumed these stores will keep on existing, because as you said, cities wouldn’t be the same without them.

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