Just under a year ago I wrote about the likely impact of COVID-19 on our high streets. American management consultancy McKinsey claims that in just three months in early 2020, e-commerce grew as much as had been expected in the next ten years. Similarly, Sharon White, chairman of the John Lewis partnership, said this year “We’ve seen decades-worth of change in the space of one year. Shopping habits have changed irreversibly.”
These are not trivial claims. The world of commerce is transforming, but let’s be honest, it was transforming anyway. Nobody here is saying that economic progress has been put back by the pandemic – in fact, the claim is that it has been moved abruptly forward.
But forward to what? For most of the twentieth century, the way to make money out of retail properties was to attract more shoppers. Never mind what you’re selling. If enough people turn up, they will buy it. This philosophy saw its acme in the huge retail malls and city centre shopping centres built in the 1990s and 2000s. Expensive brands, the same in every town, were sold to crowds of shoppers who forsook traditional high streets and locally-run businesses. Money was made by landlords and investors, but not so much by shopkeepers, and even less by retail workers. Then the internet came along, and the writing was on the wall for these soulless corporate shopping experiences. COVID-19 has just brought their demise a lot closer. That is often presented as a bad thing. I’m not sure that it is.
Interestingly for us on the Isle of Wight, areas like ours which have not historically invested in shopping centres may be at an advantage. Although the planning rules (set by the government, not your local council, so sit down please) still seem to favour out-of-town shopping parks, this is likely to change in the future because these stores will no longer be so profitable. Even before the pandemic, the UK saw record numbers of change of use applications from retail shops to restaurants and cafés. Other activities like bakeries, barbers, nail bars, and even gyms and urban golf courses are moving into spaces that were once occupied by shops. The common factor? None of these can be done online.
Island towns have proven themselves welcoming to these small, personal, boutique activities – more so than many market towns elsewhere in England where endless chains of Italian restaurants and designer shoe shops ousted all the locals years ago, and are now closing down. Consider the thriving shops in Upper St James Street, Newport; Union Street, Ryde; or even Cowes High Street. Sure, there are a few national names there, but the most memorable ones, and all the new ones, are local. We already know the Island is going to do well out of the COVID-19 boost to home tourism, but could we be in for a double bonus? Our distinctive locally-owned and chainstore-free towns might be just the starting place for a post-pandemic High Street renaissance.