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The reinvention of the High Street

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RECENT reports in the national press quoted the Prime Minister urging businesses operating remotely to ‘get back into work’ to breathe life back into the cash-starved high street and jump-start the recovery.

Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are also said to be ‘aghast at the impact empty offices are having on town centre shops and restaurants – and worried that widespread home working is wrecking the UK’s productivity.’

Some may say there is a risk of Guernsey following suit.

Whilst Guernsey has been Covid-free for many weeks and our short commute to work is much safer than having to rely purely on public transport, many businesses over here are still having to follow head office directives. As such, restrictions on offices being occupied full-time are still widespread.

Even the States of Guernsey is still predominantly working from home.

Yet, interestingly, there is a large sign at the front of Sir Charles Frossard House urging us to support our local retailers.

While working from home can be positive from an environmental perspective – reducing traffic emissions and congestion – we should not forget our beloved town centre survives purely on the footfall created by our comings and goings.

But if we are staying at home, we are not going out and about. We therefore become far more predisposed to not spending money where our money needs us most. We make our lunch rather than buy a sandwich. We don’t stop by our favourite coffee shop. We ditch the bacon butties and we buy our birthday presents online.

Ultimately, we look for the convenience offered by our sofas.

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Put simply, it is far easier to not spend locally and spend more online, whilst we stay at home.

All of this must be a great worry for our local retail sector. Not only has the industry struggled with mandatory closures for several months, it has also lost the cruise ships. But even without the cruise ships, footfall is possibly now only half of what it was pre-Covid.

So what can we do?

One of the first questions to ask is: ‘Are the environmental benefits of working from home as much as we think?’

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We might be using less petrol, but once the weather gets colder and the nights draw in, us home workers will be turning on our lights and jacking up the central heating.

At the same time the office lights will be switched on and the air conditioning will be fully operational for those on the weekly rota. We wonder if this is really conserving the energy we had hoped for? With corporate social responsibility always at the forefront of our minds, the wider economic impact of home working has to be a key consideration.

The local high street and our town centre is the jewel in our crown. Our local planning policies do all they can to focus activity within our main centres. Yet, the fall-out from Covid suggests the opposite may now happen. We need to do all we can to reverse this.

It has been interesting to observe, up and down the High Street, that even when many UK retailers remained closed after lockdown lifted, it was the local independents who reopened.

As commercial letting agents, Watts Property has received many enquiries from new start-ups and individuals looking for space to try out their innovative ideas, borne out of their time at home.

Equally, landlords have been increasingly willing to offer flexible terms. It is these businesses that will kick start and accelerate the transformation of the High Street as we know it. And we need to do all we can to embrace it.

So how will this work?

Humans are essentially tribal beings. If we do continue to work from home, I suspect we will crave social interaction and relationships far more. Missing our friends and colleagues, we will yearn for a social place to come together. A place to catch up with those we know and love.

Over the past few years, high streets across the UK have begun to reinvent themselves. Retailing is more of a social and experiential pastime. Coffee shops, eateries and cafes have sprung up, as have barber shops, beauticians, hair salons and entertainment venues. It is the stores which require personal contact and those that leave a strong impression or allow brand engagement which have done well. It is also those which create lasting relationships. The pile ’em high/stack ’em cheap have done less well. But those that offer strong customer service and permit you to ‘try before you buy’ are likely to be those which survive.

If St Peter Port becomes more about human engagement and social experience, I am sure it will continue to flourish. If it can become about ‘relationship retailing’ rather than just getting our jobs done, I am also sure it will continue to play an important role in all our lives.

To support this, we do however need to make it both attractive and accessible – where the community can exist and grow together; an exciting place to be. A place with free Wi-Fi and street art. A centre with good transport links, where active travel and safe cycling is promoted. If we can convert more upper floors into residential accommodation and maintain free parking, this will ensure we are doing all we can to maximise footfall. But above all, as Boris rightly urged, ‘we need to get ourselves back to work….’

If our home is our island, rather than the other way around, then our High Street will surely survive.

Will Green

By Will Green
Business Editor

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