The British high street means many things to many people. To some, it’s the place to buy essentials or grab a quick drink, to others it’s the place to run into people you know and have a chat. It’s a staple of everyday living, close to your doorstep and incredibly familiar.
In the world of business, nobody fights harder to survive than those on the high street. Clothes shops face constant pressure from fast-fashion retailers, and every year more small book shops are closed down, in large part because of the rise of Amazon.
However, one thing has become clear in recent weeks: when the high street shuts its doors completely, it doesn’t take long before we really start to miss it.
Speaking to those who rely on the high street to do their shopping, it becomes clear that it’s more than just the convenience that is being lost. “I miss the hustle and bustle”, says Cathy, who regularly visits her local high street. “Shopping for things is fun in person and you can meet people, and buy things local and fresh.”
The shutting down is, of course, because of the current Covid-19 crisis. On 24 March, the UK government announced that it was shutting down all shops selling “non-essential” goods, which meant the closure of the majority of brick and mortar stores in the country.
The effects of the lockdown were immediate. Some of the high street’s biggest shops struggled, and within the first week there were already reports of businesses on the verge of collapse.
Workers were hit even harder — the UKHospitality group, which represents bars, cafes and restaurants, estimates more than 1m jobs are at risk.
However, in the food sector at least, there is hope, in the form of food deliveries. What might have previously been just an add-on for many food businesses has now become the only way for them to serve their customers.
High Street Heroes, a new online platform, hopes to help connect people in and around London to local businesses. On the website, users can browse a directory of food shops near their postcode who are still open for business and accepting delivery orders.
For those consumers looking to enjoy the food and drink from local businesses and support their community at the same time, the availability of food deliveries has become a silver lining.
I spoke to Olivia Martyn, one of the founders of High Street Heroes. Olivia says their mission is to “provide a platform for our high streets to connect with their communities. As things are progressing, it’s becoming even more apparent how important this is.”
There’s certainly enough demand for a service like this to exist. “Most of the small businesses I speak to on a daily basis struggle to get enough demand to warrant even opening up”, says Olivia. “Prior to lockdown, they were relying on passing trade or regular locals.
“They never had to consider home delivery, for example. Now, they either have to try and attract a new customer – and some don’t even have a website to help with this – or pivot their business to offer something else to the locals around them.”
Of course, it’s not just shops in Britain that are suffering. Around the world, particularly in large cities, there are businesses who have been told to remain closed. While lockdown restrictions have begun to lift significantly in Italy, France and Spain this week, elsewhere strict measures remain in place.
In Germany, selected non-essential stores have been permitted to re-open; commercial spaces under 800 sq metres can resume as of 20 April. However, Gyms, restaurants, bars and large stores must remain closed.
The logic around non-essential buildings has been followed around the world – gyms were labelled a ‘hotbed’ by the UK government in March, and these, along with bars and pubs, are likely to be the last to reopen.
I spoke to Ollie McCarthy, a personal trainer based in Hackney. “My business has completely changed”, he says, “before Covid-19 85% of it was face to face. Now it’s had to be completely online. It’s turned my business on its head and forced me to adapt.”
However, the effects don’t necessarily stop at the end of the current pandemic either. “Post Covid-19, there is more than likely to be an economic downturn and then my business can be seen as more of a commodity than a necessity. I’ll have to look at offering more affordable options for my service and cutting my own costs.”
It’s the persistent lockdown in the UK that makes online platforms like High Street Heroes all the more popular. But in general, online communities are seeing a boost in popularity, as they remain one of the easiest ways to connect with others, whether for business or socialising.
Countless Britons are now suddenly familiar with platforms such as conferencing software Zoom, or Houseparty, its social equivalent. Around the world, people now forced to spend considerably more time indoors are taking to online platforms to stay connected to ‘what’s happening’.
Here at No Majesty we’ve written about some of the potential positive and negative consequences of a sharp increase in social media usage, but in general, it seems that online platforms are providing many with an outlet to participate in a shared experience. After all, that is the original intention of the internet.
Disclaimer: This article contains a link to an external business website, however this article has not been marked as promotional as the business is a non-profit organisation.