On Monday, shopkeepers large and small will begin re-opening their doors to customers.
The feelings they have will be mixed. Hopeful that this will be the last time they have to put their lives and businesses on hold, excited to welcome back the customers they love and apprehensive about the shift in shopping habits we’ve witnessed this year.
The pandemic hit the fast-forward button on the seismic upheaval that was already in train long before Covid.
Challenges: M&S boss Steve Rowe believes bricks and mortar retail can survive if stores are prepared to adapt
Frankly, it’s been a bloody tough year, and its impact has been huge. We’ve said goodbye to some much-loved names from the High Street and however competitive my sector is – and it is – it’s always sad to see businesses close.
The crisis has accelerated the structural changes already under way in retail, from the rapid adoption of online, declining store footfall, move to cashless – even till-free – payment or renting as well as buying products and services.
These trends are exacerbated by lifestyle changes like the rise of home working and the shift to more casual dressing.
And yet, underneath it all, people are still shopping. They’re just shopping for different things and in a different way.
Throughout the crisis, at M&S we’ve seen just what we’re capable of when we act with pace and agility to respond to customers changing needs.
Our stores have become more efficient than ever – we’ve rapidly increased online clothing orders picked, packed and distributed direct from store.
And this gets me to the crux of my argument. I don’t subscribe to the naysayers who proclaim ‘shops and the High Street are dead’.
They just need to change, as does our understanding of what they do.
For bricks-and-mortar retail to succeed, retailers must deliver efficient, inspiring, and well located shops.
These can be a true source of competitive advantage and the place where the joy of shopping comes to life.
Great shops are a hub of expertise. Our in-store bra-fit has been a much-missed service, and while we successfully pivoted to online customer consultations with our fit experts, when we trialled a contact free bra-fit in stores last December, it was booked out in multiple locations as customers longed to get back to face-to-face advice.
People walk down the High Street in Winchester, Hampshire, last week. Non-essential shops are set to reopen on April 12
And we all know that the social element of shopping, and making a day of it, is impossible to replicate online.
Shopping remains a core part of how we connect as a community. Our amazing store colleagues are testament to that. And if the last year has taught us anything it’s the true value of human contact.
However, they must be part of an offer that blends the digital and physical because that’s how customers – and in our case our most valuable customers – want to shop.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that in recent months some of the biggest online retailers have invested in bricks and mortar.
Shops are a vibrant and vital part of British life – as good-quality, scale employers and as anchors to communities up and down the country. The answer to securing retail’s future – and that of our High Street and town centres – is two-fold.
Firstly, to thrive, the High Streets need to be vibrant community hubs, which is no longer solely a retail debate, and they must be underpinned by vibrant economies.
Given the shock of Covid, the Government’s levelling-up agenda is more urgent than ever before.
Secondly, it’s not to fall into the trap of saying ‘retail equals online’ but to reimagine what bricks and mortar retail is.
To do that, we need right support. That support must not restrict online growth, far from it – that’s a zero-sum game that helps no one.
For the sake of all rate payers, business rates reform cannot be kicked down the road once again.
However, the solution should not be another levy on the already over-burdened retail sector through an online sales tax.
For the High Street to thrive, retailers will need successfully blended online operations too.
An online sales tax would hit the retailers that policy makers are trying to help and curtail their ability to compete through their physical stores.
The fairest and most sustainable way to tax is based on profit. We hope the increases in corporation tax can be used in part to lower the burden of business rates.
But this will only work if we tackle the fundamental issue of those who do not contribute as they should and the presidency of the G7 provides the ideal platform to address the taxation of multinational businesses.
As the future of the High Street is debated, we need to have the right policy framework to support innovation and blending physical and digital retail, not stifle it.
What I do know, is retail has an unbelievable ability to adapt.
And I, for one, will be there to welcome customers through the door on Monday, as the next chapter begins.
Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on them we may earn a small commission. That helps us fund This Is Money, and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.