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High street
SOS

Illustrations by Shonagh Rae

The boarded-up windows that now scar London’s most celebrated shopping destinations tell the story of the tough time shops have just been through. But all is not lost. John Arlidge talks to those helping the high street come back with a bang

Walk down your local high street today and you’ll see plenty of gaps. Not branches of the cargo-pants-and-white-T-shirts American brand but empty spaces where shops once traded. There are no more — deep breath — J Crew, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Wallis, Cath Kidston, Warehouse, Oasis, Laura Ashley, BHS, Oliver Sweeney, Evans, Thomas Pink, T M Lewin, Carphone Warehouse and Thornton’s.

No one will arrange to meet ‘outside the big Topshop at Oxford Circus after work’. Asos, which bought the brand last year, is reviving it online only. The only queues of shoppers will be for the fire sale at Debenhams on Oxford Street. It closes its doors for the last time next month.

After years of slowly squeezing high street chains, online giants have finished many of them off during lockdowns. Figures from the UK’s Centre for Retail Research show 320 shops closed every week last year. Mid-range restaurants that once fed shoppers are following: Jamie’s Italian, Byron Burger, Carluccio’s. ‘The value destruction is epic,’ says Mark Robinson, chairman of the Government’s newly formed High Street Task Force.

With numbers like that, and the prospect that fewer of us will work from offices in future and pop out to Zara at lunch, it’s scarcely surprising that two-thirds of us worry that the high street as we know it is at risk of disappearing.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, we do still love the high street. Almost two in three Britons say local shops and malls are central to a sense of community. Those who are in work have plenty of money to spend. We have saved an additional £180 billion during lockdown, equivalent to about 10 per cent of the UK’s annual gross domestic product.

“If retail is to exist in a digital world,
there needs to be a reason to visit”

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“I see massive scope to turn former commercial properties in town and city centres into thriving communities”

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“Britain has always been good at retail. We haven’t forgotten how just because of Covid”

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