Why Manchester’s high street is stronger than you think

Local retailers are insisting that the prophesied ‘death of the high street’ will NEVER happen in Manchester.

In response to the rise in online shopping, local shopkeepers are providing unique experiences that can only be enjoyed in-store.

The fate of the British high street has been a hotly debated topic of late as dark days descended on the retail sector.

Toys R Us – with its stores shutting in Manchester last month – is the latest casualty in a sea of brands forced to close in the UK, and House of Fraser has, this month, announced a sweeping store cull.

Nationally, the total number of shops across the UK is expected to fall by 22 per cent from 281,930 to 220,000 by the end of 2018, according to forecasts by the Centre for Retail Research.

And Manchester experienced the highest number of retail store closures across the North West last year, according to research compiled for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) by the Local Data Company (LDC).

A snapshot from January revealed there were 808 shops in the city compared to 837 in January 2017, sparking fears of high street demise.

Vaughan Allen

Yet Vaughan Allen, chief executive of CityCo, which manages Manchester’s Business Improvement District – a consortium of 400 retail, food and other customer facing businesses – said the outlook here is far from bleak.

“The city centre is essentially full – with waiting lists for shops in places like Old Kings Street,” he said.

While conceding that circumstances were tougher in 2017 than for the couple of previous years, Allen said: “There is a lot of optimism still, despite the challenges.

“Even if retailers are reducing their store portfolio to meet the changing needs of today’s shopper, Manchester City Centre is always going to be a place where you want a store.”

Allen continued that retail is in a state of ‘evolution’, with the high street being re-imagined rather than in a state of demise.

Retail revolution

Shoppers in Manchester

The rise of online shopping has no doubt changed the way we shop forever.

Faisal Sheikh, finance and economics expert at the University of Salford Business School, said: “I believe retail is in the early stages of digital disruption or what I call ‘RetailTech’.

“All retailers ranging from micro entities to those generating billion pound turnovers can no longer take consumers for granted.”

Yet customers are still demanding both online and offline shopping experiences, with the lines between the two continually blurring.

Jane Sharrocks, general manager at Selfridges

Jane Sharrocks, general manager at the thriving Selfridges in Exchange Square, said: “Our ethos has always been that our online offering should complement our in-store service – they are both elements of the Selfridges experience and work hand-in-hand.

“We know our customers like to browse online before coming in-store to purchase and vice and versa.”

Margaret Jacques

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Margaret Jacques, head of branch at John Lewis in Cheadle, concurred: “It’s no secret that the way people are shopping is changing. Many of our customers don’t approach shopping as either online, or through a shop, but instead they use both.”

Allen says that although brands are reducing store numbers, they are instead investing heavily into store design in city centre stores in a bid to make shopping more experiential.

What the future has in-store

Next Cross Street
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

The Next store at Manchester’s Arndale Shopping Centre is a prime example of how the high street is evolving.

From July, the store, already boasting an in-store barber and florist, will host a Ford five-car showroom where shoppers can test drive vehicles and the keys to new cars will be handed over.

“It’s about experiencing the brand or being able to look at things that you can’t see online,” said Allen, who predicts we’ll also see more high-end food and beverage outlets in traditional clothing, and other, stores – providing people with more reasons to pop in.

Earlier this year, at John Lewis Cheadle, an ‘Experience Desk’ was opened to provide customers with a concierge-style service.

Jacques, explained: “Shops are now increasingly used as a leisure destination, a source of inspiration, personal advice for those bigger or more considered purchases, or as a convenient destination for click and collect and returns.

“That’s why our strategy in shops is about experience and inspiration. We also have a rolling calendar of in-store events, pop-ups and workshops.”

Meanwhile, Sharrocks highlights the imminent launch of the ‘most exciting beauty destination outside of London’ at the brand’s Trafford store.

“Our vision is to continue to be the destination for the most extraordinary customer experiences, and to surprise, amaze and amuse our shoppers – however they choose to interact with us.”

Allen concludes that only retailers who don’t adapt while be left behind.

“Brands like Toys R Us hadn’t changed their strategy in years,” he said. “What were are seeing is an evolution.

“There are lots of new and interesting things in the city centre that will reconfigure retail completely from how our parents recognised it.

“A few years ago they were talking about the death of the high street but we always knew that it wouldn’t be the case in Manchester city centre.”

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