The Great British High Street: a tale of death and disruption

Sometimes the writing is on the wall. Sometimes it’s on the pavement. Once the scene of busy, bustling, commercial activity, the pavements of Britain’s high streets see fewer, and smaller crowds of shoppers these days. Is the bell finally tolling for the Great British high street?

For those UK retailers reliant on feet-on-the-street for business, recent years’ slow, steady decline in fortunes must feel like a death by a thousand cuts. Caught on the hop by the popularity of ecommerce, caught napping by changes in the demographic mix of communities and their shopping habits, and caught out by increases in business rates, retailers find themselves in a landscape that has become a hostile environment where all the old certainties are fading away.

Take Christmas, for example. This is the one time of year when even the most reluctant shopper could be seen out and about shopping. But all that’s changed now; Christmas 2016 was the fourth successive festive period which saw an ever-decreasing number of UK shoppers take their business to retailers’ physical stores.

December 2015 was a real low point – the worst trading month for retail since 2008, in fact. But the downward trend continues, and although the fall in sales of 0.1% in December 2016 might not look too bad superficially, it masks a poor performance in categories like fashion, where the decline is more pronounced.

So, that’s that. Time to pull down the shutters for the final time, give the floor one last sweep, and come to terms with not having to open up in the morning.

No one would blame an independent retailer for feeling gloomy about the health of the high street; times are hard enough for the large retail groups, after all. But while there’s no denying things are tough, tough times call for tough decisions. If the world around you is changing, why aren’t you changing too?

If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting


I’m not sure anyone’s yet written a book called ‘What Would Amazon Do?’ although there is one about Google which asks that question. If such a book exists, I expect there’s one thing Amazon’s phenomenal success story would teach us, and that’s that it purposefully seeks out the kind of disruption other businesses fear.

Imagine becoming a global leader in online book sales then declaring war on books. That’s what Amazon did. First it disrupted book retail sector, then it disrupted publishing. Better to be disrupted by your own decisions than by someone else’s.

While in-store footfall has continued to fall over the last four yuletide periods, online sales were up 19% in December 2016, and in the week before Christmas that surged even higher – 51% up on the same week in 2015. That’s a positive metric, but probably small consolation to anyone running a shop. Healthy high streets need people – lots of people. If everyone is sitting at home shopping online, how can high street shops hope to thrive?

Maybe by doing things differently. Maybe by working hard to take advantage of trends and technology. In short, by taking a leaf from Amazon’s playbook and disrupting themselves instead of waiting passively to be disrupted.

One obvious idea would be to become a parcel shop. But don’t just stop there – don’t just sign up with one or possibly two big name delivery companies and expect all your worries will fade away. Do your homework, find one that works for your business and with your business. And when you’ve done that, make sure you let people know.

You might have just transformed your shop into the answer to all my missed delivery prayers. But if I don’t know, then you might as well not have bothered. Tell me, give me an excuse to use your shop, and when I’m there dazzle me with your professionalism, customer care, and range of things I might be willing to buy from you … disrupt me and my usual patterns of shopping behaviour. Who knows, it might be the start of a whole new chapter for both of us.


A version of this article first appeared on the Parcelly Thought Leadership blog.