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Changing Retail Habits

In May 2007 internet sales accounted for 3.1% of all retail sales, in May 2020 they accounted for 32.8 % 1. Whilst this has dropped back slightly in the months after the first  lockdown eased, internet sales still account for close to a third of all retail sales in the UK.

In addition, we know that since 2015 there has also been an overall decline in high street footfall of 5% (accounting for seasonal and other variations)2.

However, these trends don’t necessarily mean that all high streets are failing, rather it signifies their function is changing.

The impact of COVID-19

City centres were hardest hit during the first lockdown as all the people who typically visit city centres (employees, tourists, students and shoppers etc.) stayed away. Local high streets in contrast generally fared better. From 1st March to 30th June, district centres saw footfall drop by only 34.5% compared to a drop of 75.9% in city-centres over the same period3.

With more people working from home, there is also evidence that footfall patterns have changed with people visiting high streets throughout the week and Saturday no longer being the busiest day. Similarly, many high streets have found they have less of a daily peak in activity at midday with more of an all day economy developing.

One recent study4 reported that 26% of respondents said they had re-discovered their local high street during lockdown, although 74% still wanted more reasons to visit and 69% say they would like to see physical improvements.

By way of illustration of this change, a retail manager from a district high street in Bristol was interviewed during the first national lockdown as part of a high street renewal project5 and noted;

“I know most of our regular customers…  and I know we’ve seen a steady stream of new customers – people have realised the value of their local high street.”

Changing Patterns of Work

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, long-term patterns of work were changing. For example, between 2008 and 2019, there was a 40% increase in the number of self employed people – meaning there were 5 million solo self employed people in the UK at the start of 20206.  

In fact, solo self-employment has accounted for over a third of all employment growth since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008 with the evidence being, prior to the pandemic at least, that the solo self-employed had higher levels of job satisfaction, were more likely to report being happy and had lower levels of anxiety than employees7

The flux of 2020 introduced many to flexible patterns of home working and during this period of economic shock there is growing evidence to suggest this led many to go it alone. For example UK business incorporations were up 30 per cent in the four weeks to mid-December compared with the same period last year, and the annual growth rate has been in double digits since June.8.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, in the years preceding the pandemic there was a trend towards flexible, co-working spaces9. And, it wasn’t just freelancers and start ups utilising co-working spaces, 80% of senior executives in a 2018 study10 stated that they expected to make use of collaborative spaces in the next three years.

Industry commentators are now predicting the co-working model is likely to evolve out of the pandemic with one recent report11 predicting the;

“start of a shift by companies looking to new geographic locations to fundamentally change the way in which they distribute their workforce”

Towards Liveable and Sustainable Neighbourhoods

There is growing evidence12 that people increasingly want to live in neighbourhoods where services and amenities are nearby, not just housing developments. For example a recent survey13 undertaken by YouGov indicated that 71% of people think people should be able to meet most of their everyday needs within a 20-minute walk, cycle or local public transport trip from their home.

In Paris, Mayor Hildago recently announced an ambitious ‘la ville du quart d’heure’’ initiative – based on the concept that all city residents should be able to access the majority of their everyday needs within a 15 minute walk or cycle. It’s an approach that it is also gaining momentum in the UK and has now been adopted by the Mayor of London. The Mayor’s office explains14;

“The 15 minute city concept invites us to imagine thriving local areas with easily accessible jobs and services; better street space and active travel; and greener more resilient communities

To realise this vision will require new thinking about the type of land uses provided at a town and district level. This includes embracing higher density mixed-use development15, including places to work, places to socialise and access to open spaces.

It also inevitably means rethinking how we design and manage our streets and public realm. Notably, the YouGov survey16 also indicated that  84% of people now view streets and roads as multi-purposed – enabling people to move around but also as places where people live and spend time.

There are also reasons to believe that our current model of transportation is changing. Data17 recently released by the DVLA suggests that driving is losing its popularity among younger people. Only 538,000 licenses are held by those aged 25, who number around 900,000 in total. By comparison, 54 year olds share 880,000 licenses among 937,000 people.

It is also worth noting that the government’s planned electric vehicle revolution is challenged by the fact that terraced streets without private driveways are commonplace across the UK and it will therefore require a fundamental rethinking of how we move around cities and allocate road space to achieve.

Relevant to this, is the emerging ‘Mobility as a Service’ model18 which has the potential to revolutionise how we travel away from private ownership of vehicles towards more of a pay-per-use approach. There are already a plethora of services available from multi mobility apps like Whim (currently used in the West Midlands), sharing apps for cars, bikes and e-scooters, services like Uber and Lyft, as well as car clubs and car subscription services.

Towards Multi-functional High Streets

These trends, when considered together, suggest it’s time to think again about the role and function of local high streets for the years ahead.

With new typologies of high streets emerging19, there is a growing consensus that we need to nurture more multi-functional local high streets and district centres that address the multiple needs of local communities. This is likely to mean a greater diversity of uses and embracing new ways of doing things like community business models20.

Although, it could also be argued that this is more about rediscovering mixed use high streets. Historically speaking high streets were characterised by a melange of activity, a place to buy and sell goods yes, but also where things were made, where people lived and could come together.

It is also worth noting that this approach of diversification is already embedded in The National Planning Policy Framework21 which advocates for allowing local centres;

“to grow and diversify in a way that can respond to rapid changes in the retail and leisure industries, and thus allow a suitable mix of uses (including housing) and reflect their distinctive characters.

However, with the pandemic acting as the catalyst for change, now is the moment for action to ensure high streets can emerge from this crises stronger and more resilient.


  1. ONS: Source dataset: Retail Sales Index time series (DRSI)
  2. Mumford et al (Review of High Street Footfall July 2019 – June 2020)
  3. Mumford et al (Review of High Street Footfall July 2019 – June 2020)
  4. Re-Opening UK Retail Post COVID-19: An Analysis of Shopper concerns and preferences. Collaborative report from Springboard and AL Marketing
  8. December 2020FT.Com (
  11. Cushman & Wakefiedl. “UK Co-working 2020 – What’ next on the flexible workplace horizon?” October 2020.
  20. Saving the High Street: Power to Change. September 2020