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Can bricks ever again compete with clicks after Covid?

February, 2021

With online sales rocketing and footfall in physical shops significantly down, Andrew Metcalf, Director of PR and marketing agency Maxim, considers the options for our communities and struggling high streets.

What’s this got to do with a PR and marketing agency, you may ask? Well, the reality is Maxim has worked with town centre managers, property owners and on major urban redevelopment projects – as well as for community champions such as Visit Kent and Produced in Kent – for more than 25 years.

There was no alternative to the national lockdown, but the British Retail Consortium estimates high street retailers have lost £22bn in sales last year, with non-food shops sales plunging by 24% in 2020 – a 40% slump in footfall compared with the previous year.

Healthy town centres are at the heart of vibrant communities with balanced economies, with companies such as Maxim helping to promote them or support their transformation. Before we can suggest what to do next, it is imperative we understand the scale of the challenge.

Disruption

The news that Debenhams and big chunks of Arcadia Group were snapped up by online-only retailers Boohoo and Asos will have long-term repercussions for the future health and wellbeing of our towns. They will disrupt our local economies and in the short-term lead to a major leap in unemployment, as well as hitting the Treasury’s coffers.

Buying the brands, rather than the bricks and mortar, will have sent a shockwave among local authorities across the country. Many councils have invested in town centre property portfolios and are now looking at falls in their value. And the Government will have lost millions previously paid by Debenhams and Arcadia Group in business rates. HMRC’s situation has been exacerbated by Asos and Boohoo only paying £48.1m in tax on combined online sales of £4.5bn.

Pension funds, shopping centre owners and commercial property experts will be eagerly looking into the evolution of our town centres, and how they can be repurposed and renewed in order to secure the value of their portfolios.

What next?

The Government has already brought forward changes to the planning system to try and secure town centre footfall, notably changing commercial to residential uses, but it is vital there’s balance and we don’t lose important employment space.

There will inevitably be a greater interest in the experiential offering of our town centres and a greater emphasis on destination, and on that basis many towns in Kent have the potential to bounce back.

What we need is for all the interested parties to come together, recognise the scale of the challenge, agree the priorities, and then get on with making things happen – with Government backing.

Projects such as Biggleston Yard and Guildhall Quarter – two schemes that Maxim has worked on – are good cases in point of what could be achieved, blending industrial heritage with food and drink and residential, or mixed-used development in the heart of Canterbury. The case for the projects was recognised by the city’s Kentish Gazette on its front page, thanks in part to our work.

To get the ball rolling, we need to look beyond Kent’s borders, look at what’s worked elsewhere and pick out the best bits, and consider how we could adopt and adapt them.

I’m sure that when we’ve a plan we will be knocking on an open door at South East Local Enterprise Partnership, Kent & Medway Economic Partnership, Kent County Council, the districts and borough councils, as well as the property owners and business champions – and together we can bring forward practical plans to secure the future of Kent’s high streets.

Andrew Metcalf - Director

Andrew Metcalf

Maxim / Director

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