BY TAMRA BOOTH, KEEEPS
The British high street is back open! What a start to a week. The most exciting so far in 2021 in my opinion.
We saw huge queues of eager customers lining our high streets last summer when the shops re-opened for the first time, and this time is no different. The big change is in the absence of the large chains, the likes of Debenhams and Topshop, which have closed during the second lockdown. These high-profile collapses have caused much chatter, particularly in the press, about the “demise” of the British high street and “retail being at death’s door”.
Keeeps is my passion and my outlet to get creative but my “bread and butter” is in property, retail and restaurants, sectors in which I have spent the last 35 years. As a small business owner with an insight into the British high street by virtue of my other “day job”, I thought I would set out my thoughts on what is next for this great British industry, why it presents an opportunity for small business owners and one that Keeeps is grabbing by the horns!
My retail journey
You may be wondering why, as the owner of a small pottery business, I am throwing my two pennies in about the state of the British high street. Let me begin...
In 1974, the year I was born, my dad founded Sorbon Estates, a commercial property investment and development company in the South-East, as an extension and financial back-up to his more cyclical housebuilding business. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with him, being dragged around building sites, which unsurprisingly is where my love of property began. You know what they say, hard hats are where childhood dreams begin!
When I was 12, I started my first job at my sister’s “Lia’s Sandwich Shop” in Marlow where I worked every Saturday and that is where my passion for retail started. I don’t know whether it was the delicious sandwiches, the buzz of the shop, or chatting to all the customers, but I was completely hooked.
Throughout my teens and 20s, I continued working in restaurants and retail, eventually opening my own restaurant in Brighton, called “Saucy”, serving contemporary British food. I managed and ran this popular little restaurant for four years until I decided to sell and move back to my family’s business. I loved my stint as a restaurateur, and I really gained an insight into how it worked from the other side of the fence, as a tenant.
Today, I divide my time between Keeeps and working in an advisory capacity for Sorbon Estates, where our fantastic team look after an estate of 1,500 tenants, with retail accounting for about a third of the portfolio. Most of our retail tenants are located on cheerful and charming high streets in market towns in the South East with half being independent businesses. Sorbon takes a real interest in the tenants’ businesses and what they can add to the high street or locality and I have learnt so much about the nature and resilience of retail over the years, that I have come to understand a fair bit about the British high street and small businesses.
What's so great about retail?
Above all, I love customer interaction and providing products and services to customers which bring them joy. It’s the reason I love Keeeps, not only is it a creative outlet for me but it satisfies my retail itch, something that runs in my blood!
Also, I love to shop. Whether that be for clothes, homeware, gifts, kitchenware, plants, you name it. Shops and businesses have had to adapt, build, and grow their online presence during lockdown and this is an important channel for all retailers to master. But couple that with a physical shop and you have a winning combination. You cannot underestimate the excitement and experience of visiting a high street shop.
There is nothing better than grabbing a coffee on a Saturday morning and wandering up the high street, checking out pop-up shops and market stalls, and striking up conversations with shopkeepers who recognise you and say ‘hi’. Or, joining friends for a browse followed by a cheeky glass (or bottle) of wine or beer and some lunch. It’s an experience, a day-out, a chance to get out and about and have a chat. I’m also one of those people that can’t walk past a clothes rail without feeling the material, pass a candle without smelling it or walk past a gorgeous shop window without stopping to ogle. Shopping is such a sensory experience, which is why it cannot be fully replicated online. That is exactly why the British public love retail so much, it creates a buzz, a positive feeling and happiness - there is a reason they call it retail therapy!
How will the British high street survive?
The social side and sense of community that comes with a wander up the high street is something that cannot be experienced online. And Britain has some beautiful high streets and town centres, with stunning architecture and small boutique shops, mixed in with popular and convenient chain stores. Some of my favourite retail centres are Marlow, Market Harborough, Harrogate, Amersham, York and Chester. And, of course, you cannot beat London – but I prefer areas with more of a community feel, like Shoreditch, Coal Drops Yard, north of Oxford Street, Convent Garden and more. Places that have their own character, individuality and differentiation, whether that be from a healthy mix of interesting retailers or nearby amenities like the river or a great park.
The BBC said it perfectly, “humans are by nature social beings. It’s this desire for entertainment and community that will likely be what eventually draws people back to the High Street, even if the streets themselves look different when they do”  and I couldn’t agree more.
So, what is the future of the great British high street?
Retail guru, Mary Portas said “There is too much nostalgia and too little optimism about the future of the British high street”. Well said, Mary.
Fair enough, the pre-Covid British high street may well be in need of a shake up, but that’s largely due to consumer needs and not because of the high street itself.
Consumer needs are a reflection of current trends, events and issues. In recent years, we have become far more aware of self-care and mindfulness, climate change and supporting local. This has translated to a boom in active wear, yoga classes, sustainable fashion and unique handmade items over mass-production. This is great news for small, local businesses and exactly why now is a great time to establish a presence.
Equally, many people are now more inclined to spend their hard-earned cash on themselves, rather than on “stuff”. Yoga, spin and pilates studios are beginning to pop up on the high street and these types of businesses offering classes and events are increasingly popular.
With many workers likely to be working from home for the foreseeable, co-working office spaces offering a fun mix of work and play are likely to become more popular.
The way forward is likely to be “socialising” the British high street and making it a community hub and these “leisure” spaces are perfect examples. They offer an experience that you can’t get online, luring their customers to visit their stores in person.
As the British Independent Retail Association say, “Independent retailers give our towns and high streets diversity. They make them unique and give us something to love that can only be found in that one place”.
By showing our small local businesses support, you are supporting local skills, supporting the community and its economy, and creating an identity for the local area. Independent local businesses will play an essential role in the post-Covid revival of the British high street.
Where do small businesses stand in all of this?
The period following an economic downturn is often a great time to go for it when it comes to running a small business. Deloitte states “Since the start of 2017 we estimate that the number of chain stores across the country has decreased by 5.97%, while the number of independent stores has increased by 1.28% (and accelerating.)”. With more vacant space available on the average British high street, and the current business rates discounts in place until the end of 2021, it’s a great time for small independent businesses to grab themselves a sensible deal in a tenant-friendly market.
Covid has changed the way we work forever. Many people will be working from home full-time or part-time, and their lunch hours may well be spent on the local high street. With normality on the horizon, demand for city centre living is on the rise, with rental enquiries “surging in some city centres according to new analysis by Rightmove”. This is great news for independent cafés and restaurants but also for small businesses too who will benefit from lunchtime browsing on both the local and city centre high streets. I, for one, will definitely be getting out there for a lunchtime mosey!
Pop-up shops are a great way to build brand awareness and put the feelers out to the community before committing to a longer lease. Keeeps currently occupies a pop-up shop window in Marlow and I love hearing from members of the community who have spotted us and got in contact. It is such a great way to hone your brand and products, and learn to understand what the customers really want (not what you think they want).
So, is the British high street for Keeeps?
Absolutely. Steve Rowe, the Chief Executive of M&S said “I don't subscribe to the naysayers who proclaim 'shops and the High Street are dead'  and he’s spot on. Provided businesses can adapt to the times, the future is bright for hardworking retailers. Adaptation, flexibility, resilience and managing change is absolutely key.
Having tested the high street with a pop-up, we are confident enough to now take the plunge by opening a permanent shop on Marlow high street in the Autumn. I cannot wait to welcome our customers in person and be able to show all our beautiful pottery to you in person. We will also be offering pottery experiences to ensure we have enough to attract customers through our doors and become part of the fabric of the community and not just a one-dimensional offering. Watch this space!
To summarise, here are our top 5 reasons why the British high street is here to stay:
- It’s sociable and full of community spirit
- It’s an experience to enjoy alone or with friends and family
- High streets in residential areas are being frequented by more home-workers
- Shopping local ticks the sustainability box that so many now strive for
- It’s currently a tenant-friendly market, and interesting, innovative independent businesses will begin to pop up and thrive
So, get out there, have a mooch and show your local high street some love!