There was promising news for the high street recently. According to the Centre for Cities think tank, overall footfall across the UK’s 63 biggest city centres in February was only 7% below where it was pre-Covid.
But there is still a long way to go before physical retail can breathe easily. London, for example, is still far away from its pre-pandemic levels.
Providing immersive experiences that online cannot replicate needs to be the focus for recovery. Some big names are already doing so. Sweaty Betty and Nike, for example, have launched in-store boxing and yoga classes; Fenwick is hosting baking workshops; and at Selfridges shoppers can even experience psychedelic-style trips through VR headsets. Browns, the designer store, has installed interactive mirrors in dressing rooms, which offer styling guidance and suggest complementary products to the garments being tried on.
I predict that smart assistants in store, rather than traditional shop-floor assistants, will be a growing trend. Even more exciting is that there could be the likes of holograms in stores in place of human checkout operators – instead of putting their payment card into a traditional reader, shoppers in the Disney store, for example, could be inserting their payment card into a life-size hologram of R2-D2, mirroring the way Princess Leia uploads the Death Star plans by slotting them into the droid in the movie Star Wars.
If Amazon, the epitome of online retail, is opening physical stores, then it shows that bricks-and-mortar retail must have a future. Other online brands are following suit: Wow Concept, the online Spanish retailer, recently opened its first-ever retail space in Madrid. The store, spanning six levels, offers a different unique experience on each floor. Online broadcasting giant Netflix will also open its first-ever store in Tokyo later this year; I predict a UK outlet will not be far behind.
Bricks-and-mortar retail needs to up its game now and use the inspiration of these examples to really bounce back from the downturn and permanently turn footfall around. Otherwise many star high street names may see shoppers not returning for good.
Mark Leeson is operations director of property and construction consultancy McBains