With Poundworld going into administration, and the announced closure of two-fifths of House of Fraser’s shops, it is clearer than ever that the face of our high streets is changing. Older consumers have powerful spending potential but this frequently goes untapped; steps need to be taken to ensure that the market is properly catering to the grey shopper.
Whilst evidence shows that for each year over the age of 55, average equivalised household expenditure on food and groceries, eating out, clothing, and leisure declines by approximately 1%, it has also been shown that older consumers want to be spending more than they currently do. Based on previous estimates by ILC-UK from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (2014/15), approximately 60% of those aged 50+ eat out at least once a month, yet more than 40% of them would like to eat out more often. More clearly needs to be done to ensure that the market caters well to older consumers.
Recent years have seen a string of major retailer closures on the high street, ranging from more upmarket department stores such as House of Fraser, to discount retailers like Poundworld. Meanwhile, new store openings are at their lowest level for seven years; after accounting for closures, 1,772 shops disappeared from our high streets in 2017. On the other hand, the proportion of sales done online has been growing year-on-year, with sales in May 2018 rising 19.9% on the amount spent in May 2017.
This paints a worrying picture for older consumers, who are more likely to shop in brick-and-mortar outlets and who are less likely to make purchases online. Previous ILC research has also shown that a lack of internet access is associated with 28% lower spending. So, what can be done to address this?
Improve the built environment and accessibility: High streets should be pleasant and attractive places to visit, for all age groups. Although the £1 million High Street Renewal Awards supported seven towns to create welcoming retail environments, more needs to be done given ever-declining footfall. Pedestrianising high streets can make them safe and accessible for older customers; for example the newly-pedestrianised Croydon high street is introducing an interactive sensory lighting trail to help guide pedestrians.
Cut out unnecessary fees: As recently found by the British Parking Association, there is not always a clear relationship between car parking charges and the amenities on offer in a local area, with some local areas charging too much. For those older consumers still driving, this could act as a barrier to visiting town centres.
Rethink online shopping: Redefining brick-and-mortar shopping is crucial, noting that consumers of all ages appreciate opportunities to see products before they make a purchase. A ‘click and mortar’ approach could be key, combining digital shopping with in-store experience of products.
Help older consumers shop online: Alongside initiatives such as digital inclusion programmes, the government needs to ensure that websites conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines which are currently woefully under-observed; very few websites are fully accessible, creating unnecessary additional hurdles to online shopping for older people and those with disabilities.
Make it easier for businesses: Through the helping hand of the government, shops could be supported to stay open. For example, offering business rate discounts for independent businesses and entrepreneurs, or favouring town centre planning applications rather than out of town could help to slow or stop the decline of the high street.
Research Fellow, ILC-UK
British Parking Association. (2013) Re-Think! Parking on the High Street: Guidance on Parking Provision in Town and City Centres
Cesira Urzi Brancati and David Sinclair. (2016) The Missing £Billions: The economic cost of failing to adapt our high street to respond to demographic change
Research undertaken by the Local Data Company and commissioned by PwC, accessed at: https://www.pwc.co.uk/press-room/press-releases/store-openings-at-lowest-level-in-seven-years-as-digital-demands-and-appetite-for-experiences-continue-to-redefine-british-high-streets.html
ONS Statistical Bulletin, Retail sales, Great Britain: May 2018