The changing face of retail: will Manchester’s high street survive?

Everywhere you look it seems there is doom and despondency over the fate of retail stores. With major household names going into administration, uncertainty over Brexit affecting consumer confidence, and of course the seemingly unstoppable rise of online shopping, many would have you believe that, across the country, the high street’s days are numbered.

Bucking the trend

Manchester and surrounding areas in the north are by no means immune to this decline. But it’s important not to get bogged down in pessimism. Manchester is still one of the UK’s top retail centres, and indeed in some ways is bucking the national trend. And nearby Altrincham has become celebrated as an inspiring example of regeneration, with its thriving market proving that given the right conditions and opportunities, bricks and mortar retail can still thrive in the modern age.

Local economy

136,000 people are employed in retail in Greater Manchester, with Manchester itself having 13,500 retail employees. Over £900m was spent in Manchester’s shops in 2018, and the sector remains a highly significant contributor to the city’s overall economy. The number of retail workers in the region has actually increased by 2% per annum since 2016, compared to a decline of -0.3% nationwide. The biggest increase has been in part-time retail jobs, which have grown by 6% during this period.

It’s clear that retail is hugely important to the local economy. A recent report by Colliers suggested that Manchester had the busiest high street outside London. But with the likes of Clas Ohlson closing stores and moving online, shop owners and town planners need to move with the times, and that shopping areas need to evolve if they are to survive.

The biggest threats

The overall state of the economy, and political uncertainty, is definitely having an impact on the retail sector. With less money in their pockets, shoppers are forced to tighten their belts. But the economy will recover eventually and political crises are temporary. A more serious, long-term threat is the rise of online shopping, which is almost certainly here to stay. 

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From e-commerce to m-retailing, where people are increasingly shopping on their mobiles, online shopping is quick, convenient and puts a wider range of goods than any one store can hope to stock just a click away. Items are often cheaper, as online retailers have lower overheads, and they can be delivered to your door the very next day.

Winners and losers

One consequence of the rise in online shopping is an increased need for storage solutions. As a result, self storage units in Manchester have seen a two-pronged rise in business. Not only are people looking to store their internet purchases safely and securely until they have room for them at home, but businesses are using storage units as additional stock-space, free of the large premiums that come with increasing physical store locations.

Bars, cafes and restaurants are also doing well in Manchester, and larger stores are increasingly adding food and drink outlets to the services they offer. Rather than try to beat the online retailers at their won games, bricks and mortar shops need to play to their unique strengths by making shopping into more of a fun day out, or a “leisure experience.”

The way forward

Shops are tactile, sensory environments. You can see and touch the goods, try them out, and enjoy the unique experience of walking around a well-presented store. In many cases it’s the big chain stores that are suffering as a result of the online shopping revolution. Who wants to trawl around a faceless department store or supermarket when you can get the same items cheaper and easier online? 

Smaller independent stores however can play to their strengths by offering a unique shopping experience, one you can’t replicate on the net. Even big chains can get in on the act. Witness how the Next superstore at the Arndale has transformed itself by adding a barber, a florist and even a car showroom where you can take the motors out for a spin. Companies are investing more in store design and experiential features so that visiting the shop becomes a joy in itself. In-store events, talks, workshops and book clubs can all contribute to this end.

One possible way forward was demonstrated recently when Amazon chose Manchester for its first ‘Clicks And Mortar’ pop-up shop. This was essentially a showroom for independent online brands, including Salford’s own Swifty Scooters, and was by all accounts a great success. Omni-channel retailing, combining online searching, instore browsing, and click and collect solutions, could well be the future for the sector overall. Whatever form tomorrow’s retail may take, there’s little doubt that Manchester’s high street will be at the forefront. 

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