Retail failures catalyse High Street change

A supreme irony about the Arcadia brand that has gathered so many unwelcome headlines this week is that the name is rooted in a rural idyll, whereas its town centre-based stores were part of a business empire that traded far from perfectly. Its collapse, along with Debenhams, was sadly as unsurprising as it was traumatic for the 25,000 people whose retail jobs are now on the line.

The reasons for these latest corporate retail failures have been well-documented and analysed, so I won’t reiterate them here. However, I’ll just add that unfortunately it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to draw a line under Arcadia and Debenhams. Other brands are in such precarious positions that 2021 is likely to unfold with further store closures.

Unpalatable as this is, it may not deliver the knock-out blow to UK High Streets that some commentators are predicting. In fact, it might just act as a crucial catalyst for urban change. I’ll explain why: so far, a lot of attention has focussed on raw floorspace statistics (back of an envelope calculations suggest Arcadia and Debenhams alone could release up to 15 million sq ft across the UK) and it is clear that significant amounts of former retail space will need to be absorbed in town centres up and down the country.

But the real harm caused by retail failures isn’t the amount of floorspace they release, it is the erosion of consumer choice, the principal driver of people into town and city centres. The good news is that there is growing recognition that simply replacing retail with retail (even if that is possible, which it often is not) isn’t a sustainable solution.

Successful town centres which attract new footfall and then retain it are those which have already abandoned a reliance on retail and have instead opted for diversification-led resilience. This is typically based on a three-pronged strategic approach which incorporates:

local strengths, including talent, history and culture
tailored experiences that are relevant for that location
flexible use of buildings, public spaces and local skills

In the case of Arcadia and Debenhams, town centres which can creatively reuse the physical space as well as recognise and redeploy the skillsets of the thousands of former store workers (in fields such as personal customer service and product knowledge, which can’t be easily replicated online) will be able to create sustainable economic well-being. If it is anchored in a truly mixed-use environment, there will clearly recognisable benefits for local communities, while property values will be pushed up, rather than down.

This win-win scenario is one that P-THREE is already helping to realise for forward-looking public and private sector landowners and urban regeneration practitioners who understand that by creating great places based on the needs and desires of local people, businesses of all kinds – and that includes bricks and mortar retail stores – will thrive.

Article by Hannah McNamara, Co-founder P-THREE