It is often said that you don’t truly know what you have until it’s gone. And the high street is no exception.
The closing of once-giant high street brands like Debenhams and Topshop in recent weeks has sounded to many like the death knell for the high street. These brands’ flagship properties will leave huge gaps in towns across the country, leaving naught but abandoned buildings standing like tombstones for another era.
This is a chance to adapt, evolve and create a new high street fit for the modern world.
Only when access to our communal spaces is taken away do we really grasp their true significance. The high street has been the cornerstone of communities for decades. Now these once bustling centres of commerce and conversation have fallen silent. But hard times don’t last, and the high street has seen many hard times before. Brands and consumers have made a mass exodus from buildings to websites. But this has left a massive opportunity on the high street. This is a chance to adapt, evolve and create a new high street fit for the modern world.
One brand’s abandoned building is another brand’s blank canvas.
Above: Debenhams, the 200-year-old UK retailer, was in trouble before the coronavirus pandemic and is one of the chains that has not survived past it.
Omni-channel means multi-layered
Retail has moved naturally towards an omni-channel model since the dawn of digital. But this steady migration was accelerated rapidly following the impact of Covid-19. And just as this digitisation was accelerated, so should the process of reviving and redesigning the high street. This is the time for creativity. Artists, designers, collectives and community groups have always needed public spaces to share their ideas and now there is an abundance of potential canvases sitting in the centre of our towns.
And there is a clear incentive for this too. Whilst consumers have become more digitally literate and shopping habits may have shifted, they are still human. And humans crave experience. Lockdown life has left us all hungry for novel experiences. We want to do new things and see people. We want to explore and discuss, and it is this desire for experience that retailers should leverage.
The new high street should be a multi-layered experience that combines art and experience with commerce.
Brands can create a future not too dissimilar from the vibrant marketplaces of old. Infused with sounds, smells, colours and cultures, the new high street should be a multi-layered experience that combines art and experience with commerce. It is easy to envision pop-up clothing stores for independent eco-conscious brands, a writing centre and book exchange, or an on-site residency programme for local artists. The opportunity is there for brands of all sizes to provide consumers with engaging physical experiences that are part of a wider omni-channel strategy.
Above: Whether the high street can recreate its bustling past could be down to the creative ingenuity of brands.
Some brands are already seizing this opportunity - we’ve seen the likes of Made.com team up with Black Homes UK to spotlight homes of the black community on their social pages, which could be transferred to the physical in the form of showrooms. We’ve seen this already by brands such as One Scoop Store, a curated, second-hand clothing brand that has since jumped off its Instagram popularity to feature in Selfridges’ RESELLFRIDGES ethical pop-up series in their flagship store.
Culture plays a vital role in helping a society back to its feet, allowing us to understand our differences and relate to our similarities.
Brands that build a strong audience first online can then adapt campaigns to the physical. At Cheil we’ve worked on the creation of Samsung’s Whatever Next? podcast which was made and released during lockdown but which can be easily built upon in a number of ways in the physical world via events or demos as it has already built up a strong audience of loyal listeners in the virtual world.
There is no vaccine for creativity
The high street is closed but it is far from dead. The pandemic has paused much but nothing can stop creativity. Ideas are bubbling away in quiet living rooms and bedrooms across the UK and when the time comes to open doors again, there’ll be projects-a-plenty for these ideas to breathe new life into old streets.
The new high street is about more than exciting new canvases for creatives. It’s about creating experiences that offer the opportunity for the public to connect with new ideas and to engage with new people; something we’re all long overdue. Culture plays a vital role in helping a society back to its feet, allowing us to understand our differences and relate to our similarities. After a drawn-out period of separation, the high street offers what it always has: the space to connect to each other again.