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The End of the High Street

Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

As the world came to a historic halt last year in March, our routines disappeared, the day-to-day activities we once carried out changed radically. The familiarity of meeting our friends, rush hour, attending live events and shopping have fundamentally been altered or have ceased to exist altogether. Our familiar has disappeared with no promise of when it will return. 

Our local high streets have been in danger of dying as early as the late 2010s; and, with the ban on non-essential shops opening during our (numerous) lockdowns, the high street is indeed dying. During the first lockdown, online shopping became king. With limited time outside, many became involved in a relationship with online shopping outlets – Amazon, Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing and Asos to name a few. Social media platforms encouraged this retail therapy for teenagers to feed their online shopping habits. The attraction of reinventing yourself during the lockdown and returning to an early 2000s aesthetic urged people to shop online in excess. 

But we were not in lockdown forever. Non-essential shops opened in early June and high streets were busy again, people queued up once shops were open. This might be because we longed to return to the normality of shopping physically, the full experience, walking tirelessly up and down the high street with your friends or your family and ending your shopping trips with a meal and a few bags. 

So, how can our high street possibly be dying? Walking down northern high streets, in particular, you may have noticed an increase in empty shop fronts and the infamous “Closing Down” posters long before COVID. This may be true. The high street’s death had been predicted long before COVID existed; however, the pandemic has radically changed how the fashion industry works and how businesses will operate. COVID has exacerbated the death of the high street.

Our high street familiars, such as PRIMARK, documented staggering £800 million in loses during the lockdowns of 2020. Economically, we all know the hospitality and tourism industries are financially precarious, with many having to close their doors forever. However, despite incurring such losses, PRIMARK is one of the only few retail shops without an established online shopping platform. They have insisted that they would not make moves to create an online shopping aspect of their business. This makes sense, PRIMARK is a fast, cheap fashion brand, yet so are many online favourites like Boohoo and Nastygal. Not being online seems unwise during this season of COVID, which has no end date in sight. 

However, providing an online shopping option for your store does not ensure your financial safety. Shops like Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Debenhams did have online platforms and yet have recently been acquired by online giants Asos and Boohoo. Asos acquired Topshop and Miss Selfridge for £330 million. Almost overnight, many were mourning the loss of spotting Topshop on the high street. Topshop is a brand that many would expect to experience heavy footfall in stores. The news came as a shock to the thousands employed by Topshop. As many more businesses struggle economically during this time, redundancies will become a familiar part of our COVID-19 landscape. 

So, what’s next?  Are all the shops on our high street going to move online? I think it would be smart to assume this. When we are no longer experiencing lockdown after lockdown, many can assume that people will be desperate to run to normality. But the precarious nature of COVID is too unstable for business to carry on. After this current lockdown, returning to our high streets will look very different. The companies that are holding on by the skin of their teeth may just have to hold on a little longer. Hopefully, when non-essential shops are allowed to open, we will return to the familiarity of shopping physically and begin to boost our local economies again – purchase by purchase.

Written by Tinaeke Kilwake