Can the High Street recover from the Covid crisis? Even before lockdown, around 14 shops were shutting every day, and 2019 was the worst year for sales in a quarter of a century. After months of enforced closure, shops have finally reopened. But with mandatory face masks, social distancing and roped-off fitting rooms – and no indoor cafes, or restaurants to punctuate a day of retail therapy – shopping will be vastly inferior to the pre-Covid experience.
Nonetheless, there are good reasons to be bullish on the future of the high street – and too many commentators are being needlessly gloomy on its prospects.
For a start, households have accumulated significant savings during lockdown. By December 2020, Britain’s collective nest egg had hit £197bn. Although thousands face unemployment or financial uncertainty, with close to five million still on furlough, it seems clear that those who have been fortunate enough to spend lockdown saving money won’t hang on to that cash for long.
What’s more, while a moderate relaxation of covid restrictions has been greeted with duteous gratitude, there is no reason to believe that our attitudes or behaviour have irrevocably changed. Online sales rose by nearly 75 per cent over the year to January in large part because we’ve been stuck indoors. And before wagging the finger at Amazon, bear in mind that many traditional retailers have built online propositions, leveraging technology to cope with the impact of Covid-19 and its associated restrictions.
In a similar vein, it was inevitable that lockdowns would accelerate the home-working trend. But it’s unlikely to trigger a ‘Zoomageddon’ in which town centres are hollowed out and commercial real estate implodes. Only a minority of those classified as full-time home workers correspond to the image of professionals sat in the home office. Surveys suggest that most office workers will continue to spend the majority of their week in traditional offices.