Volunteer writer, Olivia Tarr, talks about the effect online shopping is having on the high street.

Can you remember the last time you walked into a store, tried on your carefully chosen collection of items and joyfully purchased the ones that did in fact fit? It feels like a blissful memory when compared to the awkward size guidelines, guess-work measurements and heavily photoshopped images that prevail in the world of online shopping. 

At the start of the month, online retail giant Asos swept up Topshop and Miss Selfridge brands for £330 million. No agreement was made to buy any of the brands’ 70 UK stores, leaving hundreds of high street jobs at risk. 

Every high street, from the tiniest of villages to major urban centres, is beginning to look rather bare-boned. Closed stores, bordered up windows and ‘to rent’ signs are a common sight, leaving us to wonder whether our beloved high streets will ever really look the same once the world starts to shift back to a new type of normal. There is no single reason as to why high streets are suffering to such an extent, but online retail is definitely playing a major role in their steady decline. Earlier this year, the Local Data Company published pitiful statistics marking a further 7500 shops lying empty since 2018, feeding into a net closure rate of 37%. With a nationwide quarantine in place, it’s no wonder that customers have turned to e-commerce to fulfil their monthly shopping needs (and not so necessary wants). However, if all the physical shops we know and love end up closed by the time we are finally set free from the grips of tier systems and social bubbles, it seems that at this rate there will be no high street left to return to. 

In a study, titled ‘High Street Futures’, NearSt points to a TimeTrade survey suggesting that ¾ of consumers would prefer to go into a physical store rather than shop online, assuming that both are available at the time of purchase. I know that I am among those shoppers, with the extra strain and stress of sending parcels back and forth until the sizing is right, slowly becoming too much for me to want to deal with, regardless of what sales might be on! Many people have also expressed their criticisms of extortionate shipping fees and sneakily hidden taxes, concealed within online sales, which are not so much of a bargain once you actually get to the checkout. The question really that must be addressed is why so many of us actually shop online despite all of these grievances. 

Well here are just a few answers; its easy to locate products with a simple search, the stock is readily available and can be filtered to our liking, it’s sometimes a lot cheaper (maybe minus the shipping fees), but most of all it presents a certainty that shopping in-person just cannot. We might miss the atmosphere and excitement of being in an actual store, but after the journey there and the preparation necessary to go outside in most often not so pleasant weather, there is no certainty that you will find the item you desire and whether it will actually be in stock.  

Despite the culture of online retail becoming more and more of a normality for us during this lockdown, there is a real concern over the safety of physical shops in the meantime. The future of high street shopping might be in peril for now, but with the rate vaccines are rolling out and the light at the end of our Covid tunnel becoming brighter and brighter, there is still hope. If statistics are to be believed, the huge majority of us would rather shop in person and really experience a retail environment, where we can interact with the items and other people, rather than simply just being there for the sole purpose of spending money on ‘stuff’. The joy seems to have been sucked out of shopping, which I know for one is something I very much enjoyed more in the normal world pre-coronavirus. However, this excitement so many of us feel in returning to our high streets is a ray of light for independent retailers and now even major brands, who I bet also cannot wait to have us back.


Header image designed by Christos Alamaniotis.


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