Jonathan Blood
The high street, a place to thrive for independent businesses

January 22, 2024

Wareing & Company Commercial Property Director, Jonathan Blood, recently caught up with leading law firm Wright Hassall about why delivering social experiences is part of the way forward for our high streets, and why a solution to the high street isn’t a one size fits all solution.

“Over the past five to ten years, the nature of the high street has fundamentally changed, and for well-documented reasons – the most obvious being the major shift to online shopping. You only need to look at the vast increase in the number of delivery vans on our roads for evidence of this. The transition to online retail has had a concomitant impact on the uptake of industrial leases to accommodate the plethora of storage and distribution hubs needed to facilitate the digital shopping revolution.

“As a result of this, what we’ve seen on our high streets is an exodus of larger-scale retailers as they take their operations online or move them to retail parks on the outskirts of our towns. The knock-on effect has been a vast increase in vacant retail premises on our high street, a trend that had begun well before COVID-19 came along but which was then exacerbated by the fallout of the pandemic.

“We’re a small, regional firm and I can only comment from the perspective of our smaller market towns locally, but what we see is a fairly constant demand for smaller retail units, with independent businesses in the services industries as the primary tenants: hairdressers, coffee shops, more independent retailers, which do well in the local area.

“I receive a lot of feedback from people on the state of our high streets. There is a growing frustration in the amount of vacant units and lack of variety in those that are occupied. 

“I would hope that, as buildings become vacant and get re-purposed (mostly for residential on upper floors), the remaining retail space will provide opportunities for good quality, independent retail operators and we will see a return to more traditional retail offerings such as clothing shops, homeware shops, toy shops etc.

“There is now a stronger desire for social experiences our our high streets. Here in Leamington Spa, and in my home town of Stratford, it’s certainly the case that people still want to visit the town centre of a weekend – but they’re much less interested in browsing in the shops than they are in frequenting the cafes, bars and restaurants. So it’s much more about socialising, about meeting up with friends or relatives and making use of the town’s hospitality offerings.

“It’s interesting to see that even the retail parks on the periphery of our towns, which – as their name suggests – used to focus fairly exclusively on shops, are now also increasingly providing food and beverage offerings to attract footfall, which speaks to that increased interest among consumers for a social experience instead of just concentrating solely on the business of getting the shopping done.”

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