Three-year study into 100 UK high streets finds independent shops could be key to revitalising them

The results of a three-year study by Manchester Metropolitan University into a hundred high streets are back. And experts say the outlook is not as bad as previously feared.

The loss of large chain stores, such as Debenhams and Wilkos, has made way for more independent businesses to open.

Not only could independent shops be the answer to filling gaps left by department stores, but also reforming business rates and bringing key services like leisure centres and council buildings back to the high street could help boost them.

Dr Lucy Montague

Dr Lucy Montague, Senior Lecturer at Manchester Met’s School of Architecture, and co-author of High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis, says talk of our 'dying' high streets is incorrect and instead she believes it’s out-of-town retail parks that are on their way out.

The research also found that high street retailers that were able to adapt their shopping experience to ‘browse-only’ would fare better.

One such retailers is IKEA. The Swedish retail giant plans to open an Oxford Street store next year, measuring 82,000 square feet, and was previously home to Topshop’s flagship London site.

IKEA UK CEO, Peter Jelkeby, says they are adapting their stores so people can browse and pick up smaller items, such as home accessories, and bigger items of furniture can be ordered in-store for home delivery.

Peter Jelkeby, CEO IKEA UK & Ireland

According to the study, the six trends that will affect the future retail growth of our high streets are:

  • Independent retailers such as artisan food outlets, vintage clothing emporiums and vape shops filling the gaps left by collapsed chain stores.

  • The return of activities to high streets that had been thought lost, including ‘showrooming’ - physical stores being used to display goods and give advice, but not transact, with purchases being made online – and smaller convenience supermarket stores.

  • ‘Omni-channel retail’ - stores combining physical selling with online retailing.

  • Touching, feeling and looking – the ability to experience products, to sit on furniture and try on clothes.

  • Authenticity and uniqueness – offering something other than mass-produced products of mainstream retailers, like vinyl records and handmade crafts.

  • Experiences rather than ‘stuff’ – catering to people’s desire to spend money on doing things like going on holiday or having a meal or beauty treatment.

The team of researchers from Manchester Met’s School of Architecture, BDP Architects and the Quality of Life Foundation recommends seven key solutions to help town centres and high streets fight the decline.