What is the new normal for East Anglia's high streets?
- Credit: ARCHANT
The tills are ringing again. But will shoppers ultimately retreat to the safety of the sofa? Eleanor Pringle and Angus Williams investigate
It was a bright but tense morning when the shutters came up across East Anglia.
For all the hopes of the masses hitting the high street there was no guarantee the shoppers would show.
Would they be there pockets bulging with pent-up spending power?
Or would shoppers continue to kick back on the sofa, app in hand, and have their items dropped on their doorstep within mere hours?
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They did return – and with more fiscal fervour than in previous reopenings, according to Professor Joshua Bamfield of the Centre for Retail Research.
The director of the Norwich-based researched facility said that in the short-term at least demand would be high.
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“Research we are currently working on at a national level shows that demand is at higher initial levels than it was last summer,” he said.
“In 2020 we saw demand in June appear more cautious and then it started to peak into July. However this time around – largely thanks to the vaccine – we are seeing demand start out much stronger.
“People do seem more cautious than in any normal year which is to be expected – and the convenience of online shopping will compound that.
We are seeing some shift back – in groceries in particular – but every time we come out of lockdown and back on to the high street a portion of demand is lost to online sales.”
A balance needs to be struck and a strategy decided upon in the longer term, he added.
“The problem for bricks and mortar stores will be deciding how profitable it is for them to give over more capacity to their online offering.
“For many a platform like Shopify is helpful because it gives them an online presence without them needing to invest in a whole new site themselves.
“When it comes to giving over shop floor space to capacity for online order stock remains to be seen. However what is interesting is that we’ve seen a bigger shift over to shopping locally during this pandemic and it will be interesting to see how these stores keep that demand and whether shoppers are willing to stay.”
Even in the face of their favourite stores reopening people were still turning to Amazon and its counterparts in their masses.
In February Amazon Prime’s estimated UK user base hit 21m – nearly a third of the country’s entire population – with 61pc of all sales made online.
Such eye-watering figures will strike fear in the hearts of many city landlords – but East Anglia is set to fare better than some of its counterparts.
Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at the Centre for Cities, believes that in six months time our high streets will see a “return back to something towards normal”.
“Particularly in small and medium-sized towns and cities – like Norwich and Ipswich – there will be a return,” he said.
“That’s assuming people feel confident about safety and that we have followed the roadmap, I think we will see a return.”
And as the vaccine rollout continues experience suggests that even those who are yet to have the jab are keen to get back to stores, he added.
“What we saw last summer – and even some of the pictures I’ve seen so far this time around – was that there was a desire for people to return back to the high streets of our small and medium-sized towns and city centres.
“These places saw footfall return back to pretty close, if not exceeding, the levels that they saw in February 2020. This suggests that despite not having a vaccine, at that stage, there was a desire for people go back to shopping or visiting high streets.
“I would expect to see a similar sort of bounce-back again, not least, because half the population has now had at least one dose of the vaccine.”
However, Mr Swinney said the centre of the country’s largest cities had not a similar bounce-back last summer.
These areas will likely not get back to their usual levels until workers return to the office, bringing with them the incidental purchasing power that is currently confined to Instagram adverts, he said.
“It’s all eyes on that worker perspective for those places,” he said.
Mr Swinney added that the pandemic had not been the accelerant to online shopping that some predicted – but that ground is still being slowly lost to transactions over a screen.
He said: “While the amount of money spent online jumped up last year, it did not jump up as much as you may have expected it to.”
According to Mr Swinney, in October last year for every £1 spent 25p was spent online. This was up from 19p per £1.
But, he said, this was skewed by the fact that things like nightclubs, concerts and football matches were closed, limiting where people could spend their money.
“I think Covid will have seen a move over to more money being spent online, but I don’t think it’s as big as people would have expected, which I think is a smidgen of good news for the high street.”
However hopes that a working-from-home revolution would drive high earners out of London and into commutable regions – but higher standards of living – such as East Anglia, may not pay off as much as hoped.
Mr Swinney said that instead these workers are likely to buy into a “digital lifestyle” for both work and leisure instead of contributing to the high street.
“The reason why the centre of London benefits from having workers coming in every day is because the workers were literally having to walk past the shops and cafes,” he said.
“But now if they’re living in a more rural location, what they’ve done is ordered their Waitrose shop online and they’re going to go and make themselves pasta for lunch, in their own kitchen, rather than going out to buy lunch.
“So from that perspective, I don’t think that on a weekday, there necessarily would have been much of a substitution going on in terms of spend from the centre of London to the local area.”
At the weekend, however, Mr Swinney said these digital commuters would be contributing to the local high streets.
He said: “If those digital commuters have got more money in their pockets, it means that the size of the pie has actually increased for the local high streets.
“They may only get a small sliver of it, which still puts them in a better position, but I don’t think it necessarily means that all of a sudden there will be all of this London money pouring through the tills of local shops.”
Why our high streets matter
For several hundred years high streets have been the hubs of towns and cities, providing a central spot for businesses to base themselves.
Since the middle of the 20th century they have been under threat. First from out-of-town shopping centres, then from the internet and now from the coronavirus pandemic.
High streets provide jobs and livelihoods as well as driving investment into our town centres, keeping them safer and cleaner.
But there are some who believe that to survive high streets must adapt.
Adrian Fennell of Norwich’s Roche Chartered Surveyors, believes that the key to this could be converting some space for residential use.
He said: “We know having more people living in cities and towns makes them cleaner and safer, because they become self-policing by people who spend all their time there.
“We also know it’s good for the local economy because these people go out and spend, they visit the theatres and the leisure sector, visit the gyms and service businesses.
“What we need now is for councils to somewhat pave the way with this when it comes to planning so we can start rebalancing our high street in this new, evolved era.”