RETAILERS need to reimagine the high street to ensure their survival in an increasingly digital world, an academic has warned.

High Street favourites such as Top Shop and Debenhams have all closed, or announced their closure, since last year’s first lockdown shut non-essential retail outlets while the pre-Christmas restrictions, that have only been lifted this month, wiped out the year’s busiest shopping season.

Despite the enforced closure of shops and a general downturn in the fortunes of high street retailers, the Welsh headquartered budget fashion chain Peacocks was brought out of administration at the start of this month.

The Cardiff-based firm was bought by its chief operating officer Steve Simpson, with the backing of a Middle Eastern consortium, after its former owners the Edinburgh Wollen Mill group placed it –and a number of its other high street brands it controlled – into administration in November.

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The rescue deal however has still led to the closure of around half of Peacocks’ 400 stores and the loss of 2,000 of its 4,000 jobs.

Peacocks was previously bought out of administration by billionaire retailer Philip Day’s Edinburgh Woollen Mill chain in 2012 when the Welsh firm collapsed under £750million of debt. At the time it employed 9,000 people in 600 stores across Britain.

The National Wales: The Peacocks store in Cardigan is one that has survived the pandemic.The Peacocks store in Cardigan is one that has survived the pandemic.

The latest rescue deal will likely see unsecured creditors, including landlords, suppliers and the taxman, lose money they were owed.

Dr Eleri Rosier, a reader of marketing and strategy at Cardiff University’s Business School, said for the 127-year-old business to thrive in the future it needs to rethink how its stores, that can be found on high streets across Wales, operate.

And while the re-opening of non-essential retail, on April 12, has provided an immediate boost, Dr Rosier said the convenience and popularity of online retailing cannot be ignored.

“Physical retailers have to innovate and make themselves more attractive for shoppers to come and support them,” she said.

“These past few weeks we’ve seen huge footfall with everyone going back to the high street but the high street was in a difficult place before the pandemic.

“I’m not a retail futurist but chains do need to think about innovative changes that we’ve not seen before. When Next re-opened last week it paired up with Homebase so it had stalls with Homebase plants and garden products.

“Next hadn’t previously had an association with DIY or gardening products but they know people have been taking an interest in their gardens during the pandemic. I think we will see more partnerships like that or Costa Coffee, for example, opening concessions with fashion brands.

“We know people like to shop and to spend their day having a coffee. Mary Portas, eight or nine years ago, put together a plan for experiential shopping such as sharing spaces with libraries or gyms; people would like shops to be much more sociable places.”

The National Wales: Next in Wrexham. Picture: GoogleNext in Wrexham. Picture: Google

While Peacocks’ presence on the high street has been saved, Other high street staples such as Debenhams and Top Shop, that were part of Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia group, will move to online only.

That has cost some 25,000 jobs as new owners, internet-based competitors such as Asos and Boohoo, were only interested in securing the right to use the brands online. But Dr Rosier warned firms that to continue to operate on the high street they must also improve their online presence.

From her own experience, Dr Rosier said she also found common complaints from local businesses over parking fees in many towns across Wales are an issue that should be addressed to help the high street, as well as rents.

“My hometown is Carmarthen and it’s no surprise to see so many shops, despite huge investments, have closed as parking charges make it unaffordable for people to spend all day shopping. At out of town retail centres you can park all day for free.”

Trade union USDAW, which represents shop workers, has warned that research has shown only two or three online jobs are created for every 10 lost in “bricks and mortar” shops, and job losses in retail disproportionately hit women.

It wants the UK Government to research how women, younger workers and those from ethnic minorities are impacted by the loss of retail jobs.

Though all parties contesting the Senedd elections have made promises on jobs, those in the retail sector haven’t been given the highest priority.

In its manifesto Labour has said it will work with local partners to develop a “master plan” for high streets and town centres and will help retailers adapt including increasing online sales and support local delivery services.

The Conservatives have promised to abolish business rates for small businesses while the Liberal Democrats have promised to freeze business rates for the next five-year Senedd term and replace them with a “fairer, more supportive system” in the longer term.

Plaid Cymru wants to appoint town centre managers to co-ordinate investment and promotion and they would would also produce town centre action plans.

Shoppers give their verdict

Among customers browsing one of Peacocks’ typical neighbourhood, high street stores on Albany Road, in Roath, Cardiff there was affection for the company but mixed feelings about its retail offer.

Grandmother Maureen Davies, 77, said while she isn’t a regular customer she believes the chain caters to an important market: “I think for people with children it would be pretty essential really these days if money is short as Peacocks are pretty good value really.

“I was concerned it could close as I thought for people with families it would affect them”

Patricia Clements had a personal connection to the Cardiff-based firm and is well aware of the difficulties facing those dependent on retail as her daughter lost her job when the Arcadia group collapsed.

“My daughter and son-in-law started their retail careers at Peacocks’ head office, they work in marketing, and that’s where they cut their teeth. My daughter works in central London now, she was with Arcadia group, but has got another job.”

The 65-year-old was pleased Peacocks has survived administration but thinks it cannot ignore the need to change: “I thought it would be a shame if it closed as it’s been around forever really, but they do need to update their styles a bit.”

Leaving the shop empty handed was 22-year-old Kamile Balciunaite who said she was pleased to have the chance to get back to the shops but admitted she wouldn’t have felt a loss had Peacocks disappeared from the high street.

“To be honest I don’t really like it. I always go in there to see if they have anything and there’s nothing really for me. It’s good for socks and pyjamas. I used to go there with my mum when I was younger.

“I’ve no idea who Peacocks is aimed at, it’s not somewhere me and my friends shop. I think it’s more for middle-aged women. They need to follow up the trends like H&M or Zara do but here it seems to be the same styles every time I go.”

The lifting of restrictions on retail however had pleased Ms Balciunaite: “It’s a good experience to be able to go out and try stuff on and see items in person rather than online.”