Can older people save the high street?

By: Harry Curzon and David Sinclair

Across the UK and much of the world, high streets are struggling and footfall is dropping. Recent statistics produced by PWC found that in the first half of 2019, 1,234 more stores were closed than were opened.[1]

The decline of the high streets across the UK has primarily been blamed on the growth of online shopping, with 82% of people in the UK now shopping on-line, an increase of 53% from 10 years ago. [2]

The reality is that the problems facing the high street are far more complex. And one too often unspoken reality is that our high streets are ignoring the ageing of society.

Over the next twenty years, our economy is going to be increasingly reliant on the spending of older consumers. New ILC research to be published at the Future of Ageing conference tomorrow (Maximising the Longevity Dividend) will reveal how increased spending by older people will be driven not just by their growing numbers, but also by increased spending per head among this group.

The demography of the high street customer is ageing and retailers and planners have failed to adapt to meet their needs. And as a result, older people complain that their needs are being ignored.

From closed public toilets to noisy cafes and from nowhere to sit to poor transport, our towns and cities are failing us all. A fear of crime is too often keeping people away from towns, particularly in the evenings. And too often, spaces on the high street just don’t feel welcoming for older people.

For our high streets to survive they are going to have to adapt to more older customers. But our high streets needn’t just survive – they can thrive. They can play a role in tackling loneliness as well as helping the UK economy succeed.

Shared spaces on the high street can help strengthen intergenerational bonds, yet too many places fail to find ways of bringing young and old together. And a revitalised high street could even help us deliver more housing.

The Government seems to recognise the challenge. The High Street Task Force is focussed on supporting local leaders to revitalise high streets and town centres.[3] High Streets Minister Jake Berry MP stated at the launch of the task force that: “High streets and the way we use them are changing, and this government is committed to helping communities to adapt.” If the task force is to succeed, it must better consider the impact of the ageing of our communities.

Over the last few months, ILC have been working with colleagues across retailers and academia, as well as with our friends in the ageing sector. Today we are publishing an open letter calling for action. And after the election we will be urging the new Minister to act to ensure our high streets are better adapting to our ageing society.

Our ageing society could offer a major economic opportunity for the UK, and high street retailers are uniquely placed to seize these opportunities. If we make the high street work for older people, it will also work for younger people.

But we need leadership from retailers, planners and government if we are to deliver this longevity dividend.