Has our relationship with the high street changed forever?
06 January 2021
Even before coronavirus (COVID-19), the UK high street was at a crossroads. Changes in consumer behaviour, shopping category priorities and the continuing attraction of online have had a profound effect. How and where we shop has been evolving over time, but the pandemic has certainly accelerated these existing trends and created a step-change in what we want - and expect - from our high streets.
Online shopping affecting local high streets
A PwC Research survey completed by 1,000 nationally representative UK participants in mid-October, found that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 60% of respondents had visited their local high street less frequently than before the pandemic. Online shopping had become so commonplace that 31% agreed that the closure of high street shops would not impact their shopping behaviours.
It remains to be seen what the implications of lockdown measures and behaviour changes will be on our high streets. Will there be a resurgence in high-street shopping after COVID-19? Or has our relationship with shopping changed and does the high street need to adapt to survive?
More desire to shop locally?
As restrictions ease and vaccinations are rolled out there is likely to be a desire to shop and spend locally, with the public displaying a more community-minded spirit. Almost two thirds of respondents (62%) agreed that local shops and high streets are central to a sense of community, with 56% agreeing that they are central to their local area's identity. There is, therefore, affection and desire for local high streets.
Time for high streets to evolve
In many ways, it seems that the high street is not dying, rather that it is in a state of transition. Our survey data confirms an appetite and openness to change. Over two fifths (43%) would be happy if more retail spaces were used for pop-up shops. This could bring more variety to high streets and a greater high-street presence for smaller, independent retailers. There is also openness for shopping experiences to change - 45% would be happy for shops to become a place to experience and explore a brand, not just to purchase.
Consumers are also open to their high street becoming more than just a shopping space. Over half (53%) would be happy with the removal of commercial spaces for more green open spaces in town and city centres. Additionally, a third (33%) would be happy with replacing shops for more entertainment spaces, i.e. more bars, restaurants and community spaces. Will COVID-19 restrictions have a long-term impact and create a legacy of consumers seeking to socialise more in their local areas? With many city dwellers now moving to the countryside, local high streets could become more important in future.
What might a new high street look like?
There’s an opportunity to make the post-COVID-19 high street a more sociable, diversified and innovative place. Consumers appear open to change, which holds positives for a number of businesses: those looking for a short-term high street presence, local cafes and restaurants (as consumers start to socialise closer to home), and those seeking a stronger sense of community and local identity.
However, retailers will still need to respond to the increased adoption of online shopping and think more broadly about their channels to market. As a research team, we intend to explore whether these hypotheses come to light over the coming weeks and months, and follow up on consumer sentiment around the high street and how brands are adapting. It will be interesting to see how retail spaces adapt if online becomes the primary source of sales - whether high streets will become a channel to engage and build affinity with customers and whether brands will begin to do this through more innovative means.
It will also be interesting to see which high streets recover best. Findings from our High Street Task Force research have shown that areas that are more concentrated with retail stores are seeing a much stronger recovery compared to retail areas mixed with offices and residential buildings; when consumers do now visit the shops, they want everything to be in one place. Covered or indoor shopping centres with a high retail density are not recovering in line with this expectation, with consumers preferring outdoor shopping areas and high streets so it will also be interesting to track whether this is also a preference that continues post-COVID-19.
PwC Research conducts a weekly online survey ‘QuantiBus’ with 1,000 UK consumers. Questions submitted on Thursday and results available on Monday.