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Is this the end for the British high street?

In the wake of yet more turmoil for well loved high-street brands, we look back at how we've changed the way we shop

Yesterday, House of Fraser’s creditors voted in favour of closing more than half of its stores, in a move that will also see cuts of up to 6,000 jobs.

It’s the latest in a long line of headlines spelling doom and gloom for the high street stores we know and love. Toys R Us and Maplin both went into administration earlier in the year. As well as House of Fraser, New Look, Carpetright, Monsoon, Mothercare and M&S have all announced closures. At the end of May, Homebase was sold for £1 and Debenhams has released yet another profit warning.

So far in 2018, nearly 650 retail and restaurant brands on our high streets have closed. Last year saw the closure of 5,855 stores, and a new report from the Centre for Retail Research predicts more than 10,000 will disappear this year.

For many shoppers, what was once the heart of their weekly shop has become a motley collection of charity shops, bookmakers, vape shops and empty units.

So what will become of the high street, and how has it changed?

Related: Find out which high street retailers people voted top in our investigation into 2018’s best and worst high street shops. 

What has changed for the UK high street?

High street shops

In 1994, only 0.5% of the UK population had access to the internet. Now, around 17% of UK retail sales are online and the latest figures show record figures for food and clothing sales. in 2016, we spent £81.55bn on online retail.

Traditional retailers have had to move fast to catch up with what shoppers want. Add into the mix rent increases and business rates rising above inflation, and it’s clear why many have closed.

‘Tech has made us lazy,’ says Dr Cathy Hart, senior lecturer in retailing at the University of Loughborough. ‘Consumers are much more fickle because we have choice and convenience. It’s easier to get something online, we’re not willing to wait and we have less need or time to visit physical stores. Consequentially, there’s been a drop in footfall to the high street.’

It’s not the same for everyone. Some brands have changed the way they sell to make e-commerce work for them. Argos, for example, has enjoyed multi-channel success partly through its popular click-and-collect offering. It offers speed and convenience: we can order goods online, so aren’t beholden to opening hours, and then go and pick up their order in store when it suits us.

Getting more for our money

A recent Deloitte study shows retail profit margins dropping by a third, as consumers tighten their wallets, and other costs rise. Discount stores such as Savers, Primark and B&M are all enjoying upward trends.

If we’re not after bargains, we’re looking for something with a little more personality than the classic high-street stalwarts. ‘Lifestyle’ brands, such as Joules and Ted Baker, have also seen boosts in popularity and – more importantly – sales figures.

According to Sofie Willmott, senior retail analyst at GlobalData, ‘if people are going to buy something, it needs to be worth spending money on, whether that’s an item at a very low price or something that’s a little special.’


How has the high street changed in the past 25 years?

Slide through our images of a typical British high street in the 1990s (left) and now (right), to remind yourself of how our retail habits have changed, and the old favourites we’ve lost on the way:

1990s: Blockbuster; Post Office; Boots

  • In the early 1990s, there were 875 Blockbuster Video stores in the UK. The rise of video streaming has made rental stores obsolete, and the chain went into administration in 2013. There are a few left in the world – in Alaska, USA.
  • In 1993, there were 19,953 post offices in the UK. Now there are 11,600 branches, many of them inside other shops. Despite the decrease, over 93% of people still live within a mile of a Post Office today.
  • In 1990, there were 1,069 Boots chemists in the UK; today, there are 2,500. Find out how its customers rate it in our guide to toiletries shopping.

2018: Charity shops; Tesco Metro; Boots

  • You’ll find charity shops on every high street in the UK. Many of them are entitled to rate relief if they sell only second-hand items, which means they are able to fill spaces that other retailers can’t afford to rent.
  • There are 11,200 charity shops across the UK, according to the Charity Retail Association. The British Heart Foundation has the most, with 724.
  • Tesco is currently the biggest supermarket in the UK, with 3,400 stores. Find out how its customers rated it in our 2018 supermarkets survey.

1990s: Our Price; Marks & Spencer; Woolworths

  • Our Price was once the place to go for vinyl records, cassettes, CDs and DVDs. An early victim of the online era, it went under in 2004.
  • in 1997, there were 286 Marks & Spencer stores in the UK, with a focus on clothing and homeware. Today, there are 1,025, many of which now focus on its luxury food range.
  • In 1995, Woolworths had 832 stores. The high street stalwart went into administration in 2008, and Poundland took over many of its storefronts.

2018: Carphone Warehouse; M&S Simply Food; Poundland

  • Today, 95% of us own mobile phones. There are currently 624 Carphone Warehouses on our high streets – it makes up a third of branded phone shops in the UK.
  • The first M&S Simply Food stores, which just sell groceries, opened in 2001. Marks & Spencer now makes £5.5bn a year in food revenue.
  • There are 700 Poundland stores in the UK. Its discount competitors, Poundworld, went into administration earlier this month.

1990s: Radio Rentals; Argos; BHS

  • Renting electrical appliances was commonplace in the 90s, and there was a Radio Rentals on most high-streets. By 1999, as electricals became cheaper to own, the rental market was defunct.
  • Argos had 378 stores in 1996, when shoppers were enthralled by its unique in-store catalogue system.
  • After a messy sale, BHS closed all of its 163 stores in 2016. Some 60% of these plots still remain vacant today.

2018: Costa; Argos; vacant lots

  • Since the early 2000s, coffee chains have become a high street staple. The biggest in the UK is Costa, with 2,218 shops across the country. Independent coffee chains are also on the rise.
  • Argos has sucessfully ridden the digital wave, combining its original catalogue system with a multitude of online click-and-collect options. There are currently 850 stores on UK high streets.

From commercial to social

The high street will never disappear completely, but its function and value in our day-to-day lives looks set to change. As our simple transactional purchases – clothes, music, books and groceries – shift to online retailers, space is opening up for more sociable high-street pursuits – and services we just can’t get online. Beauty salons, hairdressers, restaurants, coffee shops and bars are filling the places left behind – the future of the high-street seems to be one of sociable interactions, rather than just shopping.

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