For numerous years we have always pictured the centre of retail being the local City Centre, where typically you would find an expansive shopping centre and the large national and international multiple chain stores. A visit to a City Centre used to be an experience for the customer and as a result if you choose to drive into your local City Centre then you would have to expect to pay a premium for car parking.
However a combination of social, demographic and technological trends have conspired the bring about massive change in the retail market over the last 10 years. The main change has been the undoubted expansion in usage of the internet, we are now talking about 77% of the UK population having access to broadband in the UK and combine this with the fact that 93% of the UK population now have a mobile phone and the retailers really have a different technology driven customer.
It is interesting that such a change has been able to take place, given that the UK has an ageing population and one that on the face of it you would not be expecting to be the natural adopters of such technology changes. However statistics suggest that the number of "Silver Surfers" (term for the over 65's using the Internet) is one of the fastest growing user groups, yet despite this 5 million of this group still do not have or appear to wish to have access to the internet. It is this social attitude change to completing tasks online that has helped to drive interest in the internet. Only 5 years ago a large proportion of the UK had reservations about competing their shopping or banking online, as there were constant question marks over the security of the internet or that it was simply "just not right" to buy clothes without touching or seeing them in person. These changes though have brought about a real different retail environment that we see today.
In the 00's decade it was out of town shopping complexes that were becoming more appealing and taking customers away from the traditional City Centres. The offer of free car parking and easy access to the shops and brands that customers knew was a real attraction. This is something that caused much concern to many council planners and retailers as they could see trade being taken away from the traditional City Centre. This however became more of an issue to the smaller independent stores as over time many of the multiple chains decided to join this shopping revolution and open stores in these out of town retail parks.
However this is nothing new and retailers should not be surprised. If we look back at the 80's retail would have mainly taken place in your local town centre, with the only need to visit a city centre to visit a large multiple chain. You have found lot's of small local independent retailers, as well as large local weekly markets in which most of the local community would attend. Slowly the local High Street and markets started to see decline, however rather than the internet changing the fact of retail, it was the advent of the supermarket. They offered a wide range of products all in one place. This convenience was appealing to the customer and the fact that these stores had large economies of sale (buy in bulk) mean't the smaller independents couldn't compete on price. Hence we witnessed the decline of the local town centre High Street.
More recently the advent of the internet and online shopping meant that retailers and consumers were really asking if this is going to bring about the "death of the shop?". The arrival of low cost based online competitors such as Amazon meant that traditional retailers were starting to feel the effect. They could not compete on price due to the overhead costs of operating a physical store and the customer was becoming increasingly happy to have the convenience of the item that they have just purchased being delivered to their door. However, as online shopping became more popular and the large multiples adopted this method there became more growing customer concern in the actual time and quality of the item when it was delivered. Seasonally busy periods were regularly leaving customers without the items that they had ordered and expected, creating customer disappointment and damaging the brand image and reputation of some of these organisations. It was at this point that many of our independent stores were disappearing from the High Street as they were unable to compete on price or establish the distribution centres to enable online retailing.
The retailers of course have spotted this growing dependency on the delivery companies and the fact that customers are having an increasing level of concern over home delivery, as a result they have moved to the model of "bricks and clicks". Effectively the store has become a showroom that can is appealing to the customer looking for the traditional retail experience, however it is also the point where the online customer can choose to collect their orders from. This gives the customer the feeling of an increased level of security and control in their order, however more importantly for the retailer it brings the customer into the store and offers a much increased chance to sell additional products or services. So once again the actual purpose of the retail store is changing.
So what is left for the empty shops that have been left in the High Street and City Centres? There is some evidence that the recent cultural change in the UK of the consumer away from the larger supermarkets is starting to see more independent stores opening, offering a range of niche products. This is combined with claims that footfall is starting to increase once again in these areas. We also have the advent of the "pop up shop". These are the small independent retailers who typically will be sole traders who take advantage of cheap, short term rent to offer their products / services to the customer. Typically these are very niche products / services, however the fact that it is something unique and time restricted is starting to really appeal to the customer.
So what does all of this tell us about the future of the High Street / City Centre? Not much really, other than we can safely say that what we see today will change and adapt to meet the needs and wants of the customer.