Back to the future High Street?

With today, June 15th, the official day that “non-essential” retailers can reopen, it seemed appropriate to go and have a look at how Oxford retailers were coping.

What conclusions can we draw from an afternoon’s wandering about? It is important to be clear about what we can’t know. Levels of footfall and retail business on the first opening day after a long lockdown can’t really tell us anything about how consumers will respond to the retail sector in the longer term. Are people rushing back to fulfil long-unscratched retail needs? Or are they still scared to go and brush socially-distanced shoulders with everyone else? It will take considerably longer than one day to be sure either way.

With that caveat, I thought the town looked fairly quiet, even for a Monday afternoon, and even more so when a closer look revealed that few of the people there seemed to be doing much shopping or carrying many bags.

Beyond simply trying to guess from headcounts, I asked a few friends in retail how things are going. Generally, the feeling is that results are fairly positive, though again no-one is certain how much of that is an early bounce and how much will be sustained.

So what conclusions can we draw from a walk around the town? Here are some:

The council and shopping centre management had done a really good job of marking out one-way pedestrian routes to keep streams of people apart. Sadly, despite clear signage there was very little adherence to those routes, and even though there were lots of official-looking folks around in hi-vis, there was no enforcement going on either. It isn’t clear to me if that reflects a lack of legal powers or just first day glitches, but it is an important miss.

Oxford Cornmarket on reopening day
Pedestrian one-way routes clearly marked, but not being used or enforced

That’s especially true because it really doesn’t take many people to make the wandering experience a worrying one. If the Govt have done one thing right in the last few months, it is making us scared of the virus and of contact with each other, but a consequence of that is that without an ordered and well-marshalled pedestrian experience, it is easy to get worried about close contact with others and choose not to go back.

Many stores limited entry by stationing a colleague at the door.


Those retailers who were open struck me as doing a great job – often with a colleague stationed at the door to manage customers in and and out, and it was clear that a great deal of prep work had been done marking floors, changing signage and generally getting stores ready. There was a good deal of cleaning going on too, which was impressive.

Some big brands doing good business.

A surprising number of retailers were not open. That’s worrying for a number of reasons – most directly, obviously, it is a missed opportunity. More generally, though, I worry that those who are not open yet have concluded that they can’t afford the staff bill if they bring people back off furlough – which does not bode well for when the scheme ends.

New Look Oxford Westgate on reopening day
Many stores, even from big chains, not choosing to open.

Finally, here’s a KPI twist to watch. More than one retailer has reported to me that whilst footfall is down a lot year over year, conversion rates are up – suggesting that those really purposeful customers who are determined to buy something are making the journey, but the more casual browsers are not.

It will be interesting to watch that balance between footfall and conversion over the coming weeks, not least because they will impact different retailers in different ways. A homeware, DIY or other retailer of things that “you need when you need” will do well from just ‘essential footfall’ – and indeed at least one tells me that revenues are actually up year on year as a result.

Those retailers in fashion, beauty and other sectors however who rely on the browser and social shopper making an unplanned purchase may well struggle if the high street experience is too scary for a ‘fun Saturday shop’ and they choose to stay at home.

The next few weeks are going to be interesting for every retailer, and make-or-break for many.

On Kirkcaldy High Street

When I grew up in Fife in the 70s and 80s, Kirkcaldy was top dog amongst the local towns. Even then, it was not quite what it had once been as the coal and linoleum industries had faded. Nonetheless, with its distinctive, imposing Victorian stone buildings and sense of dour permanence it was a place we visited regularly, in a time when no-one in Kirkcaldy would have given a second thought to visiting the upstart new town where I lived.

We went for occasions. The cinema, the annual Fair, pantomime at the Adam Smith theatre.

And yes, some of those occasions were shopping related. It was in Kirkcaldy that I stood, bored witless in BHS whilst my mum shopped.

Kirkcaldy was where you would go to visit an actual book shop. For a while, a musical instrument shop in one of the back streets was mecca for any of us with rock guitar fantasies, although it was frustratingly full of people who could really play.

These days, it is fair to say that Kirkcaldy’s grandeur is faded. The M&S has gone. The Debenhams closes any day now. The High Street wears its vacancies like gaps in a row of teeth, and the smaller units are more and more a cavalcade of charity shops and outreach centres.

In this, the town shares the same fate as many up and down the country. The story is familiar. Economic hardships, low hours contracts and the death of old industries mean there is less money and less confidence about. High rents and rates and the constrictor-squeeze of the internet giants mean retailers slip away. Kirkcaldy became a poster child for this decline when an entire shopping centre just yards from the High Street went up for sale last year with a £1 reserve price.

I made a passing reference to the town in a piece a month or so ago, pointing out that if you only do store visits in London, a trip to Kirkcaldy was likely to be a shock to the system. As I wrote it, though, I realised that it was a few years since I’d walked that street myself, and so just before Christmas I went back.

I found plenty that I expected. Signs of poverty abound. That shopping centre (which sold in the end for £310k) remains in a near-death state with only 2 or 3 units occupied. There is something genuinely eerie about walking through a largely unoccupied centre, more zombie apocalypse than retail apocalypse.

The Postings – zombie shopping centre.

But I also found something I really didn’t expect. Because throughout the town there are signs of hope, and evidence of the local community fighting hard to retain the intangible importance of a strong town centre.

There are popups and independent stores galore including a farm shop and even a couple of coffee shops cocking a snook at the Costa opposite.

There is a covered market, of a sort, and market stalls popping up outside (and sometimes inside) the empty stores. Check the press coverage and it is clear the town authorities are trying their best to encourage new retail business, taking sensible looking action on parking charges and investing in infrastructure.

So is all going to be well for the community in Kirkcaldy? Not necessarily.

There is plenty that still needs to go right. The High Street still needs those big anchor brands. Not only has it lost M&S and Debenhams, but the venerable department store along the street looks vulnerable too.

There is also more that could be done in partnership between the council, landlords and tenants. The market could be made into something much more enticing; pop-up stores could fill gaps and, in an ideal world, gradually the mix of charity stores would be reduced a little.

There might be no helping the £1 shopping centre now, but repurposing it into flats and offices could indirectly support the reinvention of the High Street itself by boosting the local economy.

Talk to anyone expert in this kind of reinvention and they will tell you that it is very hard indeed. Bringing all the interested parties together is like herding cats at the best of times, and planning laws and council powers are rarely enough to allow the positive intervention a dying high street needs. It is here that government can help – towns like Kirkcaldy don’t need token central government investment, they need laws and processes changed so that obvious, sensible active management of the high street can happen more quickly.

That’s easier said than done. Give local authorities much greater planning powers to determine the type of shops, rents and lease terms that their High Street needs and you risk killing off the commercial property market altogether. Balance, and careful thought will be needed to get the formula right.

But talk to determined local retailers like the frustrated, passionate and business-savvy employees of Debenhams, angry at the avoidable end of a great brand and you sense the energy that could be put to work rebuilding.

We are a stubborn lot, us Fifers. Kirkcaldy is not done yet.