As retailers prepare for opening UK high streets from the beginning of June at the earliest, they can expect to see a shift in footfall with consumers more willing to visit town centres as opposed to other shopping destinations.
Local town centres, in particular, will be better protected. Consumers, many of whom are likely to be working from home for a prolonged period of time, will prefer to make a short journey to their nearby high street by driving or walking rather than travelling unnecessarily to reach a shopping destination such as a supermall or a city centre that they may have previously visited due to the proximity to their workplace. Major high streets such as Oxford Street will take longer to recover due to travel restrictions in place with the UK being not an attractive holiday destination, given that visitors will potentially be required to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival in the country.
The presence of independent retailers and other local businesses in town centres, including foodservice operators and beauty services, will also appeal to shoppers as many will want to support small local companies at this time with a sense of community being amplified for many during the pandemic. Essential grocers will also help to attract visitors with food and grocery forecast to account for 40% of town centre spend in 2019.
As spending has transferred online and to more engaging retail destinations, the demise of town centres and high streets in the UK in recent years has led to an abundance of empty units and lack of product choice so some high streets will struggle to attract shoppers back despite their convenience. Additionally, more cautious consumers may be put off by narrow pavement space in some locations that are not pedestrianised so councils must ensure social distancing guidelines are in place.
The hardest-hit major location will be out-of-town shopping centres and supermalls as consumers will be put off by the large number of people that could potentially be visiting at the same time and the difficulty of sticking to social distancing. Where lockdown measures have been eased around the world, malls have introduced measures to safeguard shoppers and staff, including thermal scanning to check temperatures on entry, opening at an initially lower capacity and asking shoppers to bring their own bags.
Although stringent safety procedures will help, it will be harder to convince many people to travel to supermalls and many may feel unsure about spending their day outside of their home, browsing primarily for non-essential clothing and footwear items. In addition, plenty of consumers will not have the money to spend on non-essential purchases or, even if they do, concerns around job insecurity and economic uncertainty may discourage them from shopping for pleasure.
Outlets, including Bicester Village, Cheshire Oaks and Gunwharf Quays, that rely on domestic and foreign tourists are under threat and spend in these locations will take a long time to recover, given that international travel restrictions are likely to remain in place for a significant part if not all of this year. Transport hubs, which were quickly becoming retail hotspots with mini-stores popping up in central train stations and the retail offering at airports improving, will also suffer as consumers work from home for a longer period of time and limit unnecessary travel. Additionally, with stores in travel locations often extremely small, only a few customers would be allowed to enter at one time and people are unlikely to queue for a limited product range available inside.