The changing face of the High Street

  • Ben Taylor Director and Retail Expert at Innes England 

The traditional high street is now a thing of the past. Online retailing is changing the way consumers spend their time and money. Director Ben Taylor considers how Nottingham’s high street is performing in the face of this unrelenting but exciting change

The retail sector has changed more in the last 10 years than ever before and I’m often asked “how is Nottingham performing?” The answer is promisingly, but we are experiencing an important and encouraging period of change. The reason it’s difficult for the everyday person to see this is that online experiences change much faster than the high street itself, generating a perception that nothing is happening. There is change, but the high street is constrained by a whole host of issues - not least a fragmented ownership.

The online revolution, which has picked up momentum year-on-year, means retailers no longer require a vast number of stores. Some of the UK’s leading brands require larger than life stores which aim to develop their brand experience for shoppers. Fitting these spaces into the existing environments is difficult, but something we work hard to do, as it’s essential for Nottingham to attract and retain the biggest names in retail.

Retailers are also changing how they layout stores, altering floorplans and products to change consumers experiences visiting a brand. Take Debenhams for example, as reported in The Guardian earlier this year; the new chief executive Sergio Butcher is seeking to create ‘social shopping’ which is driven by experiential services rather than traditional goods. Butcher’s concept devotes more floor space to food and drink - possibly in partnership with restaurant brands - and also incorporates nail and blow-dry bars, as more people are prioritising spending on experiences such as facials over fashion.

Retailers are constantly changing the way they create the best experience for their customers. Some are upsizing, while others are downsizing, and there is not one stand-out trend which applies to all retailers. Traditional, physical stores are becoming the best way for retailers to enhance the feel and loyalty surrounding their brand. The high street can’t compete with the online offering in terms of range, but it can offer unique experiences. This shift to an experience-led high street has seen a huge rise in food and beverage offers throughout the UK, not least in Nottingham, but also in complementary services such as nail and beauty studios, waxing, hairdressing and men’s grooming.

I’ve had a first-hand experience of this, helping Nottingham-born NKD Waxing grow its business acquiring new stores in Leicester, and hopefully Derby soon. As my client says: “You can’t get a wax on the internet”. Demand for the service is huge, which in turn drives footfall to our city centres. Incredibly, services like waxing are not seen as a retail use, which causes an issue, as it requires planning permission. This causes unnecessary delays and adds risk for businesses and in turn, the high street. This approach needs to change; a relaxation of planning would help to drive these services through and make them more prevalent in city centres. An all-encompassing use class which recognises key uses in our centres would be more practical and would definitely help to modernise traditional retail.

So, what does Nottingham need to focus on going forward? It’s clear that simply building space and hoping it is a success doesn’t always work, as witnessed in the city centre over the last couple of years.

What happens around the space is equally important. Hockley is a champion of this, a hub for independent retailers, food and drink and arts organisations and Cobden Chambers - Nottingham’s ‘home of independent thought’ nestled in Hockley -which provides an intimate outdoor area for public events.

I am currently working to oversee the sale of Screen 22 on Broad Street, which is the world’s smallest cinema and has had a cult following since its opening in 2011. The building received so much interest since it was put on the market, which is thanks to its position and the vibrant community experience that Hockley brings. It is truly a hidden gem which is synonymous with the city and a venue which will continue to be part of Nottingham’s legacy.

One of the biggest challenges faced by Nottingham’s high street is its connectivity and how fragmented it can seem. The good news is that in many cases this is being addressed, or so we hope. The white elephant in the room is the Broadmarsh area of the city, which is hopefully gaining traction, including intu Broadmarsh. The wider and arguably more important issue for Nottingham is currently what it delivers, i.e. the route into the city centre and surrounding community. This city boundary has all the hallmarks of a vibrant experience – a hugely busy transport hub, new housing, but is desperately in need of Grade A offices. I’m not suggesting the lack of investment in this area is the only reason we have not seen new grade A offices appear, but it’s an important part of the jigsaw.

The changing face of our high street is not an easy problem to address and there is no silver bullet to solve how it should be managed. There is a combination of problems driven by an ever-changing sector working within a constrained real estate environment. Change will be slow, but there is growing momentum and in Nottingham the signs of change are promising.

The Broadmarsh area can’t be blamed for everything in the city. In this fast-paced changing environment there simply aren’t the number of retailers requiring stores as there were 10 years ago. Retail deals in the city centre over the last couple of years have been re-sites of existing retailers into larger or more appropriate locations, or new food and beverage occupiers.

How many food and beverage outlets the city’s infrastructure can support is debatable. There are definitely requirements from some great operators still wanting space, but not all them will want to be part of a shopping centre and would rather be located on the high street. intu has a difficult challenge in delivering a shopping centre with the right tenant mix from retailers willing to pay the rents required to make a viable scheme. 

I’m not surprised the Broadmarsh redevelopment hasn’t moved quicker, but we are told things are moving in the right direction with positive dialogue with occupiers, so let’s hope this is the case, because for intu Broadmarsh, is not just a shopping centre in isolation, it’s a key driver for a number of other initiatives that will help deliver a better Nottingham.

Ben Taylor specialises in retail and roadside