Return to the high street: lessons from the reopening of town and city centres

The role of local leaders and place makers in working with communities and businesses to set out a new vision for our high streets has never been more important. From the differing demands of local and long-distance visitors to the burgeoning afternoon economy, there are lessons to be learned from our early analysis on the reopening of the high street. We’ve identified five areas where intervention could boost high street recovery.

The pandemic has accelerated change and the profound impact of lockdown on local high streets, town centres and city centres is clear. Working as part of the High Streets Task Force with the Institute of Place Management and consortium partners, PwC has investigated the drivers behind the post-COVID-19 high street recovery to understand the pace and shape of the recovery across different locations.

Our research for this pilot is framed using the Institute of Place Management's four town types - Comparison, Multifunctional, Specialty and Holiday, using Manchester, Ashford, Windsor and Cleethorpes respectively as examples of each. This article specifically draws on the use of geo-spatial data provided by Huq, sourced through mobile devices.

Recovery across each of the four town types has been very different

Google's COVID-19 Community Mobility report shows at a national level that footfall is 33% below baseline for retail and recreation spaces, as of 17 July 2020. However, the recovery stories vary radically across the towns in our study. For example, Ashford's footfall is down by as much as 43% below the baseline, while Windsor and Cleethorpes are already close to pre-lockdown levels.

So what explains Windsor and Cleethorpes' rapid return and why are Manchester and Ashford different? In this article, we discuss the five key findings from our analysis that local leaders and place-makers can draw on to design effective interventions:

Change in footfall for each town compared to the baseline

“As people return to our town and city centres, there’s an opportunity to reimagine the high streets that are at the heart of our local communities and local economies. The high street can’t recover through the retail sector alone: business, communities and local and central government need to come together and create liveable vibrant places where people want to live, work and visit.”

Jonathan HouseDevolved and Local Government Lead Partner

1. Not all attractions are still attractive, with outdoor spaces outperforming indoor centres

Key attractions can drive a significant proportion of overall footfall for a town. For Cleethorpes this includes the beach, while for Windsor the Castle and its surroundings bring in visitors. Demand for these outdoor leisure locations has held up well over lockdown and footfall picked up again as soon as unlimited exercise was allowed.

In Manchester and Ashford, changes in consumer preferences away from indoor spaces has left their key attractions without the same pulling power, with people less willing to travel when there is a local alternative.

For areas without natural and cultural attractions, place leaders should plan for a mix of offerings and experiences that will serve as anchors for their local communities while also attracting visitors from further afield.

2. Replacing overseas demand is crucial, as the tourism and education industries have been hit hard

Towns that have historically catered to tourists, international students and travellers were particularly hard hit by COVID-19. In our samples, overseas visitors made up around 20% of demand in both Manchester and Windsor, which has now dropped to 6% in Manchester and 4% in Windsor.

Windsor has managed to successfully replace this demand with domestic visitors as improved weather conditions and an increase in people's leisure time has made Windsor attractive as a day-trip. Since 15 June, Windsor's proportion of visitors from more than 5km away has actually increased; the only town to have done so in our study.

Domestic and overseas visitor numbers for Manchester and Windsor
The distance travelled by visitors to Windsor

Places reliant on overseas demand will need to consider how they respond to the uncertainty around international travel that will likely persist for some time. How can these high streets pivot their existing offerings to entice domestic demand?

Manchester’s experience is different, with domestic footfall also 25% below the baseline as people are more willing to visit local high streets and commuters are still waiting for workplaces to reopen.

3. Location, location, location - people are much less willing to travel more than 5km for their everyday needs

Local demand has been resilient, with fewer people willing to travel more than 5km to visit high streets. For footfall to return to normal levels, towns will need to find ways of replacing the demand lost by long-distance visitors, including those who primarily travel into the high street for work.

Cleethorpes has done this well; its high street area has maintained its local demand both in proportion and absolute numbers. Its offering of essential stores and a mix of retail and recreation options have protected it from larger rival towns like Grimsby, as people move towards wanting their needs met close to home. This effect has worked against Ashford however, which does not seem to be offering enough that their visitors cannot get more locally.

In Manchester, the fall in the number of visitors from more than 5km away is driven by fewer people travelling longer distances to commute for work. This is supported by a slower recovery in areas with more office land use. As long as working from home remains an attractive choice, this will continue to impact footfall in business districts.

While local high streets are geared towards meeting their catchment's everyday needs, place makers should also think how larger towns centres can differentiate their offerings in order to become destinations still worth travelling for, satisfying a demand that local places cannot.

4. Convenience is king, with retail density being a good indicator for a strong recovery

People are spending less time on high streets, and when they do visit they want everything to be in one place. Areas that are more concentrated with retail stores are seeing a much stronger recovery compared to retail areas mixed with offices and residential buildings.

Again, covered or indoor shopping centres with a high retail density are not recovering in line with this expectation, with consumers preferring outdoor shopping areas and high streets.

Can high streets be made shorter and more compact? Should retail units sizes change? Will local businesses be more attractive compared to national chains? Place makers need to focus on ensuring that visitors' experiences are as smooth and convenient as possible.

5. Demand patterns are changing, with busy periods reflecting a new lifestyle

COVID-19 has changed the demand profile for high streets across all towns. Busy periods have moved towards the late-afternoon, the time spent per visit has halved and a higher percentage of visits are occurring during weekdays compared to the baseline period. All of these changes reflect the increase in time people have available due to not having to commute to work, as well as the public's increased caution in public spaces.

The importance of the evening economy may soon be rivalled by these changes in behaviour, and high streets must be prepared to make the most of their day-time demand. Innovative interventions aimed at serving these new customer segments have the potential to transform high streets and boost recovery.

Average time spent per visit to the high street

“These case-studies show the value of combining datasets at a local level to give a more nuanced picture of the impact of COVID-19 on each town or high street. It is crucial that local place leaders make plans for recovery and transformation based on their unique position. Otherwise these plans will just not deliver the change expected.”

Simon QuinExecutive Director, High Streets Task Force

Know your high street, support its recovery

Overall, recovery varies significantly by town and is dependent on a variety of factors, including a town’s pre-COVID-19 demand profile, its accessibility and the nature of its attractions. Traditional offerings are no longer enough to draw in visitors, leaving place makers with the challenge of designing successful and sustainable spaces which meet the needs of their wider catchment communities.

The High Streets Task Force Top 25 Priorities for Vitality and Viability identifies key areas for focus for place leaders who would like to find out more about how to design successful interventions.

If you are interested in our work and would like to find out more about our analysis or how we can help you to understand recovery in your area, please contact Matthew Williams.

Contact us

Matthew Williams

Matthew Williams

Director, Housing, Investment and Place, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7730 733790

Jonathan House

Jonathan House

Health Industries and Devolved and Local Government Advisory Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7791 114593

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