By Professor Isabelle Szmigin, Professor of Marketing
Department of Marketing, University of Birmingham
While high street retailers will continue to battle their online competition, out-of-town malls, business rates and expensive car parking, they still have their fate in their own hands.
We’re already seeing the high street take a big hit in 2018, with Toys R Us going into administration, Carpet Right issuing a profit warning as well as a number of stores and restaurants, including Jamie’s Italian, Prezzo and New Look, closing some of their outlets.
Commentators have highlighted many factors that may have contributed to the downturn, including over expansion, the fall in the pound, a shift to online shopping, and squeezed incomes. Some have also suggested, wisely in my opinion, that we just have too many shops.
March 2018 saw the opening of a £600m extension to London’s White City mega-mall, Westfield. The shopping centre is now officially Europe’s largest and offers an eclectic mix of high-end names, such as Prada and Gucci, alongside budget fashion brand Primark and mid-range stalwarts John Lewis and House of Fraser. It’s therefore no wonder that after the Easter break the news for the high street is grimmer than usual, with the number of high street shoppers on Good Friday down by 9.6% compared to last year and down by 13.9% by noon on Monday. It is always dangerous to read too much into holiday figures as additional elements, such as the exceptionally cold and wet Easter, must be factored in.
What fascinates me is that the idea of the ‘death of the high street’ will somehow undermine our communal psyche, much the same as the idea that young people will never talk to one another other than via social media. Perhaps the most dramatic metaphor was recently used by Financial Times writer Brooke Masters, who referred to the newly-expanded Westfield as ‘the Death Star of malls — pulling shoppers from all over London into its orbit and wreaking destruction on its rivals and high streets. Who would ever go anywhere else?’
It just so happens that I was a visitor at both the Westfield in White City and my local high street this weekend and what struck me was that they were very different places offering very different experiences. While Westfield is dazzling in its variety of shops and experiences, it is also confusing, frustrating and very easy to get lost in. In addition, one of the new stores where we intended to shop didn’t have the full range of products as advertised on the website, so we left empty handed.
On the other hand, my high street, while also frustrating (for example, thinking I could have lunch in an independent café only to be told I needed to book – no worries, there was a Pret a Manger on the corner), was still busy and vibrant with a food market. It also offered a great experience in an independent carpet shop with an assistant who couldn’t do enough for us.
While high street retailers will continue to battle their online competition, out-of-town malls, business rates and expensive car parking, they still have their fate in their own hands. I would predict that while high streets will look different, they haven’t succumbed to the Death Star.