Three-year study of 100 high streets says independent stores key to town centre revival

Three-year study of 100 high streets says independent stores key to town centre revival
Dan Martin
Dan MartinDan Martin Content & Events

Posted: Wed 11th Oct 2023

Focusing on independent stores, 'browse-only' shops and experiences are among the way the fortunes of struggling high streets can be reversed, a new report has claimed.

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University studied 100 UK high streets. They looked at the major trends and issues affecting those areas over the last decade and came up with solutions to help revive local town centre retail.

Published in a book, High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis, the study said the challenges have been driven by a steep decline in the success of 'big retail' and the collapse of chains such as Debenhams and Wilko. This has left 40% of retail space surplus to requirement.

However, the researchers said, large stores departing the high street leaves a way forward beyond big retail.

Independent retailers such as artisan food outlets and vintage clothing emporiums can fill the gaps, the study claimed, with 'showrooming' - physical stores used to display goods and give advice, but not transact, with purchases being made online - another trend that can help to revitalise declining high streets.

Other trends highlighted by the report as beneficial to future retail growth were:

  • 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.

To fight the decline of town centres, the researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University's School of Architecture, BDP Architects and the Quality of Life Foundation made several recommendations

Out-of-town development should be halted, they said, with services like local councils and leisure facilities relocated in and around town centres.

Incentives should be provided for independents, the researchers recommended, with ideas such as low commitment pop-up leases, subdividing units and recycling fittings.

Business rates, which the report said for "many retailers are unsustainably high", should be reformed, and new models for town centre development less dependent on pre-lets to major retailers should be explored.

Among the other recommendations in the report were improving the environment and perception of local high streets using methods such as seating and markets.

Dr Lucy Montague, co-author of the book, said:

"There's been much talk in recent years of the high street dying, but our studies show this just isn’t the case – if anything, it's out-of-town retail parks that are on their way out.

"We hope our series of solutions and recommendations show that adaptable town centres hold the key to enabling better and quicker recovery. They are capable of once again becoming the diverse, characterful and independent places they were before they were homogenised by big retailers."

Vicky Payne, co-author and independent consultant and Associate at Jas Bhalla Architects, added:

"The most cathartic aspect of the book for me has been acknowledging that aesthetic changes to the high street are a really small part of the solution.

“These findings offer other robust, diverse approaches; delivery models, management, stewardship, planning policy, land use and physical configuration. It's a hopeful message. High streets of the future may never look like they once did, but they can evolve into new, thriving, exciting places where people continue to come together."

The study analysed 54,749 shops and 160m square feet of retail floorspace, representing a sample of 21% of all retail outlets in the UK. It includes a list of cities and town centres that score highest in the UK since 2012 for empty retail space.

In 2021, Bradford had the most vacancies at 24.1%, followed by Sunderland at 23.2% and Newcastle's Metrocentre at 22.1%.

Ordinance Survey research showed that between March 2020 and March 2022 there were 9,300 fewer retail outlets in the UK, impacted by COVID-19 lockdowns and online shopping.

Relevant Enterprise Nation resources

Video: How to be a retail superstar

How to run a successful pop-up shop

Tips to help your retail business thrive – not survive - in 2023

Group: Small retailers network

Book a free discovery call with a retail expert

Dan Martin
Dan MartinDan Martin Content & Events
I'm a freelance journalist and event host who helps small businesses and the organisations that support them. I'm also Enterprise Nation's news reporter and Bristol Local Leader. I have 20 years of experience as a small business journalist having interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs from famous names like Sir Richard Branson and Deborah Meaden to the founders behind brand new start-ups. I've worked for a range of leading small business publications and support groups, most recently as head of content at Enterprise Nation where I was responsible for the prolific output of content on the company's blog and social media. I now freelance for Enterprise Nation as the website's news reporter and as the host of the Small Business sessions podcast. I'm based in Bristol where I run and host regular events with the local small business community in my role as Enterprise Nation's Local Leader for Bristol. I also have strong connections with other major business organisations in the south west region. In total, I've hosted over 100 events including conferences with an audience of hundreds for international brands like Xero and Facebook and live web chats from inside 10 Downing Street. With my partner, I co-run Lifestyle District, a lifestyle blog focused on culture, art, theatre and photography.

You might also like…

Get business support right to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive business tips, learn about new funding programmes, join upcoming events, take e-learning courses, and more.