Doomsayers will fall over themselves to tell you that the high street is dead.
Internet shopping and out of town retail parks have killed off the traditional shopping experience they say, and with media images often portraying town centres peppered with charity shops, takeaways and empty units, it can be hard to disagree.
A report by the Centre for Retail Research predicted that one in five shops – more than 60,000 stores across the country – would close by 2018. The organisation claims customers are shunning the high street as witnessed by the increase in online retail, which is set to account for 21.5 per cent of total retail sales by 2018.
But this isn’t the whole story – in fact, there are many towns and villages which have adapted, changed and thrived, having worked together to come up with innovative ways to attract customers, showing an understanding that commercial success relies on giving the customer what they want.
NFU Mutual wholesale and retail expert Frank Woods said: “It’s true that the recession saw many high street businesses face punishing challenges and the growth of edge-of-town retail parks has sucked many car-dependent consumers away from the traditional retail centres.
“It’s also true that some major household names are among those which have disappeared from high streets over the past five years - Comet, JJB Sports, Clinton Cards, Woolworths - the list goes on.
“But for those who get the formula right there is also a renewed sense of optimism across many high streets.
“Internet shopping and out of town retail parks may offer customers convenience, but town centres which provide excellent customer service across an offering of independent and chain stores, alongside leisure facilities will always be attractive.”
A report by The Local Data Company and British Independent Retailers Association suggests the future of the high street is at a crossroads and there are still challenges ahead. The March 2015 Openings and Closings report states: “Traditional independent shops and leisure have only marginally opened more stores than they closed in 2014 in Britain’s town centres whilst the chains have continued their retreat.
“Contrary to popular belief independent high street businesses have continued to grow every year since 2009 albeit in smaller numbers as the years have passed.”
Secrets behind the best high streets
Among the category winners of the Great British High Street Awards 2014 was the Oxfordshire town of Wantage which was named best town centre.
The awards are designed to highlight the best high streets in the country and show how important they are to local communities. Judges were impressed at the partnership working between businesses and innovative ways they encouraged increased footfall in the town, such as the launch of a click and collect delivery locker, pop up shops, loyalty card scheme and live public performances.
They were also impressed with the approach taken to filling vacant shops whereby a Town Team conducted gap analysis to understand consumer preferences, thereby ensuring the sustainability of the businesses coming onto the high street.
Andrew Forsyth, branch manager of NFU Mutual’s Wantage agency, said: “For those of us who live and work in and around Wantage, the award is something to be proud of but doesn’t come as any great surprise.
“The business community in the town has shown it is possible to achieve great things when everyone individually has self belief and collectively pulls towards common goals.
“It certainly helps that Wantage is an attractive centre with a rich history. But we also have a fantastic mix of businesses to encourage shoppers, from small independent traders to larger national chains, as well as a wealth of bars and restaurants which help make the town a popular destination .
“The local authority is as determined as local businesses to make the town succeed economically and working together is another of the reasons why we have bucked the national trend.”