Thursday, 13 January 2022

Transforming UK Retail: The Nation’s High Street

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Selfridges, Oxford Street
Photo by Stacey McConaky from Pexels

The landscape of high street retail has changed drastically over the last decade, particularly for fashion retailers. 

Known affectionately as the ‘Nation’s High Street’, Oxford Street continues to be a popular shopping thoroughfare in the UK’s capital. But it isn’t immune to the changes experienced by other high streets across the nation. 

As fashion retailers like Topshop are pushed out, new players on the street like Superdry are reestablishing the value of retail through experience-led and sustainable business models. Older retail fixtures on the street like Selfridges have also been shifting their priorities to match the consumer demand for experiences and sustainability. This dynamic shift on the Nation's High Street signals to the future of retail.

New West End, a UK organisation committed to rebuilding customer demand for the UK’s high street, has outlined the need for change on the Nation’s High Street. In order for it to survive, the property on the street should represent of diverse array of businesses, not solely fashion retail, says New West End’s Chief Exec Jace Tyrell.  Fashion retail on the Nation’s High Street has to state its case for why they should stay. 

The change is already visible. This month the British department store, House of Fraser, is set to close. Redevelopment to turn the six-floor building into offices is already underway. Similarly, Oxford Street's M&S, its largest store in the UK, has received planning permission to redevelop their building in an effort to modernise the brand. They have also alluded to a redevelopment for office space. John Lewis, too, has suggested this move towards a transformation from shop floor to office space.

Topshop

The closure of Topshop’s flagship on Oxford Street was a symbolic moment of the irreversible damage to our Nation’s High Street. In January 2021, the flagship store of the high street womenswear brand officially closed its doors. In the following month the brand was bought by the ecommerce retailer ASOS and 300 physical Topshop stores across the UK alongside 200 stores worldwide closed overnight. 

The flagship opened in 1994 and revolutionised retail. The then-brand director of Topshop, Jane Shepherdson, had a keen eye for what would sell but it was her retail innovation which set the tone for the buzzing street. With nail and hair salons, food stalls and event spaces, Topshop was a social consumer landmark for the next decade.

In October this year, IKEA announced they would be taking over the space which once housed Topshop. As we have spent more time in our homes over the past two years of the pandemic, homeware and lifestyle retail has boomed. IKEA reported a 6.3% increase in sales over the course of 2020 and 2021. In terms of physical retail, IKEA has opened 25 stores in new locations over this period that have a focus on sustainability. The IKEA Shanghai store boasts an innovative retail concept, offering their customers experiences such as interactive and social events alongside the use of ‘smart solutions’ in payment and checkout.

Topshop’s failure in experience-led fashion retail might suggest that fashion doesn’t have a place in this space. However, some Oxford Street fashion retailers have been finding creative ways to remain relevant and persuade consumers that brick-and-mortar still occupies a viable space. 

Selfridges

Beyond experience led retail, retailers are engaging directly with consumer concerns on the topic of environmental sustainability. The legacy department store, Selfridges, launched Project Earth in 2020, defined by its slogan ‘Let’s Change The Way We Shop’ which is imposed onto the Oxford Street building. The project intends to reinvent retail whilst working towards scientific targets. Their commitment is underpinned by their three pillars: Materials (committed to the use of more sustainable materials), Models (exploring different, innovative business models) and Mindset (directly challenging stakeholders mindsets around consumption, from customers, partners to Selfridge team members). 

Predating the launch of Project Earth, Selfridges had begun to incorporate experiments with different fashion buying models. In 2019, in response to the rise of the resale market which, in the UK, saw a 17.6% rise in value over 2017-2019, Selfridges hosted the first physical store of Vestiaire Collective, an online marketplace which sells pre-loved designer garments. Selfridges support of pre-loved clothing culture was also evident in 2021 from September to November when the department store collaborated with Oxfam and secondhand advocate Bay Garnett. 

2022 will be another year of change for Selfridges. In December 2021, nine months after the death of Selfridges owner Galen Weston, the Oxford Street department store along with its Manchester, Birmingham and Dublin contingents and the company's Northern Ireland and Netherlands holdings, was sold to Central Group, a Thailand-based holding company, and Australian Signa Group. Although not confirmed, the sale could also see the return of Vittoria Radice, the retail tycoon who has been charged with transforming Selfridges from a lifeless building into a luxury destination as managing director of the store. This move could see an exciting renewal of Selfridges once more.

Superdry

Superdry is another fashion retailer on Oxford Street that is remodelling their brick-and-mortar business in response to changing consumer behaviour. Known for their fusion of Americana and Japanese graphic design, Superdry established their first store in Covent Garden in 2004 and have since been a steady presence in the UK retail landscape. Recently, the British brand have had a dramatic couple of years. After founder Julian Dunkerton stepped down as CEO in 2018, he publicly criticised the executive management and the business strategy. In 2019, Dunkerton returned and had a large task on his hands to make Superdry relevant once again.

In 2021, they announced their target to be the most sustainable fashion brand by 2030 which coincided with their announcement of the opening of their first large scale flagship store on Oxford Street in November 2021. In the store, printed across the walls and on small signs, are messages that detail their commitment to the environment: as you enter and leave the store you are greeted with a message saying the entire store is powered by renewable energy. Many of their garments are responsibly made too, opting for sustainable cotton or lower impact alternatives including recycled polyester. 

Superdry has also now introduced a collection of vintage Nike t-shirts and jumpers which takes over the upstairs of their two-floor store. Speaking to a sales assistant, they told me that the company sourced the Nike vintage garb from vintage sellers who weren’t able to sell them or deadstock from Nike warehouses. The items are priced at a relatively high price: t-shirts are going for an average of £30 which is above the Recommended Retail Price of t-shirts currently in the Nike shop and Superdry’s own collection. Whilst, of course, Superdry is capitalising on the widespread consciousness of circularity in the fashion industry, they are paving the way to normalising branded deadstock on the high street. The move to in-store vintage is also a creative way of hiking up footfall, making Superdry a destination for Nike vintage finds.

Responding to experience-hungry consumers, Superdry offers in-store experiences, too. The store has incorporated a Gin & Juice bar into the clothing mix and offers a dedicated space for influencer events - increasing the store's value as a destination. 

It is clear that this is a time of experimentation for fashion retail on the Nation’s High Street. Fashion retail contends with the shifting outlook of the high streets as consumers desire something different - not just a thoroughfare to shop. Our growing consciousness around sustainable consumption and our desire for ‘experiences’ is deepening, but rather than this being a roadblock for brick-and-mortar retail it is proving to be a space for innovation and redefinition.