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Will the shopping street of yesteryear ever return?

The COVID-19 crisis has turned our world upside down, and the retail sector is no exception. The lockdowns, social distancing, and online shopping have hit the physical stores hard, leaving many empty, bankrupt, or struggling to survive. The shopping street, once a lively and attractive place to stroll along endless shopping possibilities, has changed significantly. Will its character and appearance return to the like of pre-COVID times? Or will it be replaced by a new retail landscape that is more digital, flexible, and sustainable?

The COVID-19 crisis has left a visible mark on the streets of many Dutch cities and towns. A notable count of shops have closed their doors permanently, leaving behind empty windows and signs of farewell. Some of them have been replaced by other types of businesses, such as delivery services, pop-up stores, or social enterprises. Others have changed their appearance, adding screens, stickers, or posters to indicate health and safety measures. Some shops have also expanded their outdoor space, creating terraces, parklets, or gardens to attract more customers. The streets have also become more colourful and creative, lively and diverse, as some shop owners, artists, or residents have decorated the facades, walls, or pavements with murals, graffiti, or plants, and entrepreneurs or community groups have organized events, markets, or festivals to revitalize the area. Also, the type of shops is changing, with a decline in non-food and a rise in cafés, bars and restaurants – although this was already a trend.

What does the future hold for the retail sector after the COVID-19 crisis? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some experts are pessimistic, while others are hopeful. For example, the Rabobank expects tough years ahead for retailers, especially those who sell non-essential goods like clothes, books, or toys. They think that online shopping will keep growing and that physical stores will have to offer more than just products to attract customers. They suggest retailers create more personalized, convenient, and fun shopping experiences by providing advice, delivery, or entertainment. They also recommend that retailers explore new ways of making money, such as selling online, providing subscriptions, or renting out space. Furthermore, since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, gas and energy prices have multiplied, affecting the affordability of physical stores.

Number of Retail Stores per Sector in the Netherlands. Source: Rabobank
Number of Retail Stores per Sector in the Netherlands. Source: Rabobank

On the other hand, Bouwinvest is more optimistic about the retail sector in the long run. They believe retail sales will recover and grow in the next few years thanks to rebounding purchasing power and pent-up demand. They also expect some types of shops and locations to do better than others, such as food, home improvement, and prime high streets. They foresee that the retail sector will change and adapt to the overarching trends of urbanization, sustainability, and digitalization. They envision shops becoming more mixed-use and multifunctional, combining with other uses like housing, offices, leisure, or services. They also anticipate that shops will become more green and circular, reducing their environmental impact and increasing their social value.

So, who is right? Well, perhaps both. The retail sector is facing numerous challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID era. While the classic shopping street won’t vanish entirely, it must undergo significant transformation to endure and flourish. It needs to reimagine itself as an even more appealing and distinctive destination, offering not only products but also experiences, services, and a sense of community. Furthermore, diversifying functions and uses is essential to meet the diverse needs and preferences of customers, residents, workers, and visitors. Embracing sustainable and circular practices is another crucial step for reducing its ecological footprint and enhancing its social contribution. In short, the established shopping avenue should enhance its resilience, adaptability, and innovation to effectively address the challenges and prospects of the post-COVID era.

This article has been published before in the 2023 – Freshmen Issue.

Thijs van Soest
Thijs van Soest
Hi, I am Thijs! Since September 2018, I have been part of Girugten, and I am the current Chairman of the Editorial Team. I am following the MSc Real Estate Studies. My main interests are infrastructure, transport planning and real estate, but I also write about other subjects.
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