The Life & Death of the British High Street

Blair Cowan

For decades we’ve been worried about the High Street taking over independent businesses. We all have a story of one of our favourite shops or restaurants or pubs shuttering on account of a national (or international) conglomerate moving in down the street. Indeed, this is such a common concern that it shows up in pop culture as an overplayed trope: films like You’ve Got Mail, Empire Records, Kinky Boots and, more recently, 2018’s Hearts Beat Loud all cover this topic as a main plot point, with countless books and TV shows including similar storylines. All of these films paint chain stores as the bad guys while idealising the disappearing, often family-run businesses that the nation (whichever nation) is built on, but it turns out we might have been paying attention to the wrong battle for several years now.

While independent stores across the UK have long faced strong competition from big box retailers, the bigger fight in the years since the economic downturn of 2008 is between department stores and online retailers. The financial bubble of the early 2000s led many brands to expand too quickly in a manner that would prove unsustainable when the recession hit, and this greed has led to many a High Street shop’s downfall. Further, online spending now comprises 18p of every £1 in the UK, up nearly 300% in the last decade. With less spend to compete for even as consumer expectations continue to rise, it’s no wonder shops like M&S (who recently shut down 100 stores), House of Fraser (who went bust in 2018), and John Lewis (whose profits declined by a whopping 99% in the first half of last year) are struggling. Add to this the many brands whose businesses are fleeing to large, outside-the-city-centre retail parks, and it’s easy to see where economists’ fears come from. Articles worrying about the ‘Death of the High Street’ are so ubiquitous at this point that a Google search for the term brings up over 1 Million results.

At first glance, though, it’s easy to ignore the plight of the chain stores: after all, it seems like they’re finally getting what they deserve, right? They’re struggling at the hands of a faceless corporate entity just like the independent shops they put out of business over the past twenty years while we, the consumers, opt to use our power of the purse to patronise e-commerce sites instead of visiting them in person. Of course, nothing is ever that simple, and the decline in High Street shops negatively affects all areas of the economy.

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With independent and chain retailers alike feeling the pressure of strong competition, is the writing on the wall for brick & mortar retail spaces? Nope. Amazon and their ilk have made shopping at the click of a button easier than ever, but they aren’t above reproach: they’ve come under fire for supporting the NRA in the US, for paying their employees a below-living-wage salary, for poor working conditions & more. In fact, right here in Edinburgh, a burgeoning retail scene in key neighbourhoods is sending consumers back to the streets to visit shops in person: William Street, Bruntsfield Place, and Broughton Street are all chock-a-block with unique, independent boutiques that are making waves throughout the city. And as consumers care more and more about supporting brands whose values align with their own, we’re likely to see a decline in patronage of organisations with dubious ethics and a corresponding increase in locally-owned, community-based businesses. There’s still room for businesses that are willing to have a strong brand presence, who know what they stand for, why they stand for it, who comprises their target audience, and what they have to offer their patrons.

This is where Elastic comes in. Building a brand is hard work. You’re an expert in your field, whether it’s carpentry, clothing, jewellery, or something else, but you need a team of brand experts to help you strengthen your brand and make sure it stands out from the competition. We can help ensure the success of your brick & mortar establishments through creative branding, unique marketing & a strong position amongst your competition- and in this age of intense retail struggle, it’s more valuable than ever to know your brand is in expert hands. Contact us today to see what we can do for you!