When the coronavirus crisis forced Boris Johnson to order the closure of all non-essential retail on March 23 of this year, the already-ailing British High Street came to a shuddering standstill.
Since Monday June 15, those non-essential retail stores have once again been permitted to reopen. But over the course of the 15-week closure, brands have experienced enormous losses, with hundreds forced to shutter their doors for good. Those that have reopened have done so tentatively and with such stringent social distancing measures in place as to make the shopping experience almost unrecognisable.
While there may have been queues outside ecommerce-light bargain brands such as Primark, others, such as John Lewis, which warned this week it is unlikely to reopen all 50 of its stores, have found their customer base cannibalised in lockdown by the likes of Amazon.
Given the continued risk of infection from Covid-19 and the hit to household finances amid rising unemployment across the country, retailers will have to fight to stay afloat, particularly given the added costs of social distancing measures. There can be no doubt that in this time of flux, the British high street must adapt and evolve to survive. So what does that mean for the future of shopping, and for independent brands trying to break into the market?
“Retail will never go back to what it was. I think it has changed forever. But I think pretty much all of those changes were already underway and really what Covid has done is it has just accelerated the trends that were already happening. In many ways 2030 is now 2020,” Ross Bailey, founder and CEO of retail pop-up platform Appear Here, tells the Standard.
One such trend is our collective falling out of love with chain stores – “the same shops that are on all the same high streets,” says Bailey – and chain restaurants, many of which were struggling pre-Covid. “I can blindfold you and you wouldn’t really know where you were because every street looks the same,” says the 28-year-old entrepreneur. “I think there’s an opportunity for a renaissance of all those independent stores and brands to return."
A good time then for a business like his, which is an Airbnb-type concept for unused and temporarily empty retail spaces founded in 2013. The platform, which operates nationwide in the UK, in New York and LA in the US and in Paris, offers small and medium brands, start-ups, pop-ups and even big established brands, short and mid-term retail lets on a flexible day rate. The company, which has raised a total of $21.4m in funding over five rounds, was growing triple digits year over year in January and February, before the pandemic hit and it experienced an initial slump in bookings.
“Then suddenly we started to see interest in delis, and entrepreneurs launching essential stores… people making the most of this crisis and turning it into their own opportunity,” says Bailey.
The spike in people opening neighbourhood stores serving the local area is, he says, another global trend that pre-dates Covid and has merely been accelerated in lockdown. “You’re starting to see even before this that many people are starting to spend a lot more of their weekend in the area they are living, versus schlepping into the centre of town.”
While fashion stores were forced to close, the platform witnessed a surge of independent “essential” retailers such as butchers, bakers and fishmongers, many of whom enjoyed stellar success. Bailey cites the Notting Hill Fish Shop, which launched with Appear Here during lockdown and has already gone on to launch two more locations.
It’s a success he attributes to people craving community and a shared experience. When the Notting Hill Fish Shop opened for example, there were queues round the block, akin to those seen outside streetwear stores for those awaiting the latest Yeezy drop. “When it opened you would see so many people in the queue talking and having conversations, and in a way it creates a sense of belonging even more so than if they were to just walk into the shop. It becomes much more of an experience.” The scarcity of product meanwhile - whether a Supreme tee or a piece of fish - all adds to the friction, “which sometimes can create even more community. Especially when people have more time now.”
Much like Carnaby Street and the Kings Road in the swinging sixties, Bailey believes we need a rebirth of vibrant neighbourhood shopping streets where people go to be seen, and to be a part of something, just as much as to purchase. “Culture comes from our streets and it comes from lots of voices and lots of people doing things and that’s why places like the Kings Road weren’t just great streets, they defined not only London but the culture of the time. Whether it was musicians or fashion designers or artists, those people came from those streets. I think what’s happened along the way is that we have had less voices,” he says. “You look at something like the Kings Road now and just think 'god, it's so boring.'”
For those independent brands prepared to take the plunge and spice up our streets once again, the aftermath of Covid has, in many ways, created a opportune moment of increased vacancies, lower rents (which have already come down 20 per cent) and reduced competition from major retailers. “It’s going to be a time for independents to tell their story, what they think matters right now,” says Bailey, explaining how many of the entrepreneurs they are working with more recently have been spurred on to take the leap having lost their jobs or been furloughed. “I think in this period we’ll see a resurgence of new ideas and creativity from people that maybe hadn’t had the chance before.”
In the past fortnight, Appear Here has seen bookings grow 150 per cent week on week. “Historically whenever there has been any kind of economic downturn, that entrepreneurial spirit increases and I think what’s interesting is some of the most interesting retail stores that launched in the last decade launched in 2008.”
Fundamentally, we are now facing a polarisation of retail, in which support for emerging independent brands is more important than ever.
“On the one side you have these huge technology companies who are getting more and more power, and on the other side you’ve got this sudden longing and wanting and opportunity where you’re seeing smaller guys launching and having voices… And the more empty spaces and vacancies and opportunity they have got on our streets, I think the more voices and the more diversity and the more chance you have to participate and to change not just that street but the city and the culture around it.
"I think that’s needed more than ever right now.”