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Comment: Appetite for food and drink fuelling retail footfall

Over recent years Wood Green high street in North London has undergone something of a shift in its mix of operators as food businesses continue to… View Article

COMMENTARY

Comment: Appetite for food and drink fuelling retail footfall

Over recent years Wood Green high street in North London has undergone something of a shift in its mix of operators as food businesses continue to replace outgoing retailers, which has led to evening trade becoming much more of a feature of the road.

Okay, this is a bit anecdotal, but I reckon this is a nationwide phenomenon and one that is certainly helping inject some life into troubled high streets across the UK, which continue to find life tough. This can be seen in the recent footfall figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which revealed total UK footfall decreased by 5% year-on-year in December, with high streets faring slightly better with a decrease of 4.2% compared with shopping centres that took a hit with a 7.4% decline in this crucial month.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, says: “December’s heavy rain left many shoppers reluctant to brave the elements, who instead opted to browse online before making final purchases, or shop online altogether. This led to a substantial decline in footfall levels compared to December 2022.”

Although consumers can clearly also opt for food deliveries nowadays, for many people dining out is an incredibly important experience and one they don’t want to forego. As such restaurants and other foodservice businesses are proving to be major footfall drivers in retail environments – whether that be on high streets or in shopping centres.

This message came loud and clear from the recent retail property conference, MAPIC, where Jonathan Doughty, chairman of Whitespace Partners, told delegates: “Retail cannot be the only leg of the stool. Food & beverage and leisure is becoming more of the mix not just in shopping centres but also in transit hubs and offices.”

Against this backdrop there are some impressive operators looking to make a difference to our retail landscape. Notable among them is Loungers that operates a seriously growing number of café bars across the country. It has eschewed the most high profile locations and preferred to focus on bringing its inclusive and affordable food and drink proposition to secondary locations. Its approach is more Sittingbourne than Shoreditch.

For adopting such a strategy it has become much-loved by its loyal customers who are often bereft of such operators on their doorsteps. As it has expanded to encompass over 200 outlets – with an opening rate of 30-plus cafes per year – it has become something of a regenerative beacon on many high streets.

Alex Reilly, founder of Loungers, recognises the important role the business is increasingly playing: “We continue to play, and want to play, a very significant role in the transformation of high streets. High streets have been beaten up over the last few years, and we are strong believers that their demise is rather overstated in the mainstream media. But we can’t take our role on the high street for granted. We believe that engaging with the local community, being good neighbours, and encouraging people to use the high street is going to be more relevant in terms of how our business is viewed and the success we might enjoy in the future.”

The company is certainly benefiting from a benign climate with landlords who are now much more willing to cut it favourable deals on new sites and forego any upward rental reviews on existing units. Loungers is not alone in recognising the opportunity on the high street. The likes of Heavenly Desserts have aggressive roll-out programmes – with 100 new units planned by the end of 2026. It is a similar story with Pret A Manger that had been very metropolitan city-focused in its outlets but post-pandemic it has been very much more expansionary in secondary towns – helped by franchise partners.

Such activity is contributing to creating a much broader mix of operators on high streets, which can only be good for the health of the retail landscape as it helps drive greater levels of footfall and expands the trading hours in shopping environments.

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