British high streets: from crisis to recovery?

This 2015 evidence review details the key challenges impacting British high streets, for the 2013 Future High Streets Forum and funded by the ESRC. It covers evidence around the economic crisis, demographic changes, convenience culture, out-of-town shopping, digital trends, managing town centres, and user perceptions. There is a particular focus on how changes in the practices of consumption are transforming high streets, not only negatively but also in potentially positive ways.

Date added 26 October 2021
Last updated 26 October 2021

*This resource is more than 5 years old but has been included as it contains information that is still relevant and useful*

This evidence review details the key challenges impacting British high streets, with a particular focus on how changes in the practices of consumption are transforming high streets, not only negatively but also in potentially positive ways. The resource also identifies any evidence gaps on high streets that need to be addressed. The key changes impacting high streets form the main chapters of the report, and are summarised below:

The economic crisis (2008-2014)

  • Following the 2008 economic crisis, consumer confidence collapsed and stayed low over the next 5-years, with growth in household disposable income also slowing.
  • Store closures, vacancies, and retailer administrations rose over this period.
  • The economic shockwaves exposed and exacerbated longer-term trends impacting high streets, such as growing and ageing populations, polarised spread of income, and rise in online shopping.
  • There are evidence gaps around: research at finer spatial scales, studies into high street diversity, and appropriate institutional support mechanisms.

Demographic changes

  • The UK population has been growing, ageing, and becoming more ethnically diverse, which high streets need to (or are already) adapting to, such as through offering needed services or more diverse centre offers.
  • The ageing population varies depending on geographical context (i.e. higher average ages tend to be outside of the larger urban centres).
  • Household composition is changing, with a rise in single-parent and one-child families, which impacts activity hours and transport options in centres.
  • There are evidence gaps around: the impact of ethnic diversity on high street evolution, impacts of intergenerational income differences on consumption patterns, and demographic data at a wider range of geographical scales.

Convenience culture

  • A growing number of consumers are seeking convenience from their local high streets, not only in terms of low cost but also authenticity, traceability, and responsible sourcing of produce.
  • There is a shift towards shopping little and often, in response to the austerity of the economic crash, demographic changes, and time-poor consumers.
  • There has been a rise in the convenience retail store sector, which has helped to foster a 'relocalisation’ of food shopping.
  • There are evidence gaps around: how long-lasting a consumer focus on ethics might be, impacts of convenience culture on different location types, and how the evolving convenience culture may be related to the rising ethnic diversity of the population.

Out-of-town shopping

  • The 'Town Centre First’ approach helped to mitigate some of worsening cumulative impacts of out-of-town development seen in the 1980s and early 1990s.
  • The ongoing shift from retail to leisure orientated consumption has led to a re-evaluation of the out-of-town offer.
  • The rise in online shopping and convenience culture has led to underperformance of some out-of-centre hypermarkets and superstores.
  • There are evidence gaps around: whether there’s evidence of specialist retailers returning to high streets, what is known about consumers’ linked trips, and how key high street attractors can be assessed in a consistent way.

Omni-channel and digital

  • There has been a large rise in multi-channel and online shopping over recent decades over a range of age groups, though importantly this differs by product category (e.g. larger growth for music, books and fashion).
  • The growth in online shopping has not led to the ‘death of physical space’ – but rather it points to a need for different hybrid formats and business models.
  • People enjoy the convenience of online shopping but it cannot replace physical offline experiences, which are still sought.
  • There are evidence gaps around: the effectiveness of community-led online platforms, on-the-go technologies, and a profiling of town centres based on their engagement with digital technologies.

Managing town centres

  • An early response to address town centre challenges was to establish Town Centre Management, which has evolved over the decades.
  • BIDs are becoming an important partnership arrangement in town centres.
  • Town centre management initiatives need to address both experiential and infrastructural requirements to be successful at attracting visitors.
  • There are evidence gaps around: longitudinal data on effectiveness of TCM and other partnership types, how to measure ‘experiential’ investment, and how identity of town centres can be retained with new investments.

User perceptions

  • Despite consumer behaviour changes, town centres and high streets remain important locations, especially for things like health and beauty products and grocery shopping.
  • Consumers are most driven to accessible and diverse town centres and high streets.
  • Leisure activities and an enjoyable atmosphere can lead to longer dwell times and increased spend in town centres, going beyond just retail provision.
  • There are evidence gaps around: consumer experience across physical and digital centre channels, consumer behaviour data at local town level, and how consumers perceive centre 'attractiveness’.