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Robert Irving Burns

How Department Stores Could Help To Reposition Our High Streets For The Future

May 6, 2021    |   Robert Irving Burns

Britain’s high streets face challenging times. Even before the COVID pandemic hit, the surge in online shopping meant that shoppers were spending less time in city centres. When lockdown orders forced non-essential retailers to close, it looked as if the high street’s decline was unstoppable. However, hope could be on the horizon from an unlikely source—department stores.

Department stores once dominated most high streets. Some sources say that the department store was one of the main attractions in the UK high street. They were the places to go. Consumers could leisurely browse through a fantastic array of goods, all in one place, under one roof. Now the internet is the “place to go” to buy everything under one roof.

What is it about the role of department stores in helping to reposition high streets for future revival? This article examines the changes taking place in Britain’s towns and why there is a reason for hope.

Challenges that High Streets Face

On the face of it, statistics on the challenges faced by department stores make grim reading. According to official statistics, sales in UK department stores saw a steady decline in the years until 2019. However, analysts predict that between 2017 and 2022, there will be a drop of 17 percent in department store sales.

This drop in department store sales is also reflected in the decrease in footfall on high streets. Figures show that before the coronavirus pandemic, high street footfall experienced a month-by-month decline. Since March 2020, the number of people on high streets fell dramatically.

Now, online sales account for one-fifth of total sales in the UK.

Here are some figures highlighting the challenges faced by UK high streets:

  • Between 2015 and 2018, retail employment in high streets fell by three-quarters.
  • In early 2020, some 11,000 shops closed, with just over 5,000 re-opening later.
  • Sixty-four percent of shoppers say that convenience is the primary factor in choosing to shop online.
  • Major department stores closed, such as Debenhams, House of Fraser and BHS, and other stores in the Arcadia group disappeared from high streets.

It is clear—changes are happening in high streets. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Positive trends are emerging that signal hope and revival for high streets across the country.

The Office for National Statistics produced a report which highlights some encouraging trends in UK high streets. For example, high street employment in the food and leisure sectors saw growth by 20 percent. In the ten years up to 2017, residential property sales on high streets increased by 40 percent, and there was a 6 percent population growth.

Why Department Stores Could Breathe Life Back into High Streets

Department stores could be vital to revitalising Britain’s high streets. The large—and often beautiful—buildings are ideal for repurposing to meet the emerging trends in high street footfall. For example, leisure, residential, entertainment, education, and hotels are exciting alternative uses for redundant high street department stores.

Here are some examples of what’s happening around the country to illustrate the role department stores can have in breathing life back into high streets.

Department stores that are reviving high streets

In Kingston upon Thames, the House of Fraser high street unit will be converted into a retail and leisure centre. The mixed-use redevelopment will include four floors of office space and two floors for retail and leisure. There will also be several residential apartments.

In Leicester, the former Debenhams store will be converted into 300 residential flats. The luxury high street homes will be in a building with resident amenities and a roof garden.

London’s West End is already a magnet for prime office space. With John Lewis scaling back its stores, the company plans to convert part of its flagship store into office space. The top three floors of its Oxford Street store will have three new floors of office space. The luxury property already has a cycle parking area in the basement and a dining area on the sixth floor.

In Birmingham, the former House of Fraser will get a complete makeover to make it a multi-use property. Under plans, the building will have nine floors of office space, bars and restaurants, retail space, and a hotel—all right in the city centre.

The city centre in Leeds will get a new lease of life thanks to revamping the former Debenhams store. The basement, ground, and first floors will stay for commercial and retail use. But the second and third floors will be turned into 90 student accommodation flats.

In Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, the former House of Fraser building will become a whisky visitor attraction. The building, located in a prime spot in the city centre will feature a whisky museum, restaurants, bars, and live performance areas.

Department Stores Repositioning the Future of High Streets

Many analysts say that the COVID pandemic only sped up the inevitable changes taking place on Britain’s high street. But trends and redevelopment plans for high streets show that they will continue to play a vital role in cities and towns across the country—albeit a new one.

Some of the decline in high streets now allows investors and city planners to repurpose high streets. Turning empty department stores into multi-use buildings could help encourage new growth and regenerate the high streets.

Although high streets face challenging times, they can have a bright future. When department stores once again draw people to high streets—whether through leisure, entertainment, hospitality, or residential use—smaller shops will feel the benefit. Greater footfall on high streets will mean that independent traders, small establishments, and other typical high street shops can enjoy a new lease of life.

If you’re looking for commercial property in central London, contact the RIB commercial property team today on the details below. We have a large portfolio of commercial properties available in prime London locations such as Mayfair, Fitzrovia and Soho. You can browse all available commercial properties here.

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