High Street Summit: Hybrid model of ‘brick and mortar with internet retailing’ the future of shopping

The future for our high streets is likely to involve a hybrid model of physical stores and online shopping, a summit has heard.

eading politicians from across the islands gathered in person and remotely to outline their thinking on how to regenerate and transform high streets.

Tanaiste Leo Varadkar told the Retail NI Future High Street Summit the pandemic has ushered in a third way of doing business — a mix of brick and mortar with internet retailing.

The organisers described the summit, at Titanic Belfast, as one of the best attended gatherings on high street development as political and industry leaders outlined their visions for the future.

Northern Ireland Office Minister Conor Burns, Labour’s Alan Norris, who holds the shadow ‘levelling up’ portfolio, former Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and former Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey also spoke at the summit.

Mr Varadkar, also Ireland’s Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, speaking by video-link, believes the future hybrid model will prove to be a “new and improved” take on traditional ways of doing business.

Mr Burns spoke about the government’s vision for the high streets, arguing the Levelling Up funding will help the regeneration. He cited the £49m “invested in innovative projects” across this region.

Sponsored by DWF Law, the summit was hosted by broadcaster Tara Mills, who chaired the panel discussions, including on the work of the newly formed High Street Task Force.

Mr Varadkar said: “Two years ago, none of us could have predicted the terrible consequences that Covid-19 would have on our previously bustling high streets and shopping centres.

“From business closures to stay-at-home orders, necessary public health measures meant that, while our population was protected, many bricks and mortar traders were devastated.

“Many adapted quickly, moving online, setting up delivery services and finding other ways to hold on to their customers.

“Now as we emerge from the pandemic and rebuild, this conference has been a really good opportunity to share our experiences and find ways to work more closely together for a strong, prosperous all-island economy.

“I strongly believe that the future for retail is hybrid with physical stores and on-line shopping providing a new and even better retail experience.”

Mr Burns said high streets here have “enormous potential, great produce and wonderful customer service”.

“It is that personal touch and connection which brings people back into shops again and again and it’s something which I personally value,” he added.

“Through the Levelling Up Fund, the Government is already delivering support to Northern Ireland’s retail sector. Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, for example, received £1.2 million from the first round of funding to help revitalise their town centre and improve the experience of everyone who spends time there.

“As we look ahead to the next round of Levelling Up funding, I look forward to working closely with partners in the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government, as well as those in the business sector, to ensure we continue delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.”

Chief executive of Retail NI, Glyn Roberts said: “There is no doubt we are not short of strategy and policy when it comes to the future of our high streets. The Executive’s Investment Strategy, Infrastructure 2050, UK Government’s Levelling Up White Paper, and the Northern Ireland High Street Taskforce report all set out ambitious plans for our town centres.”

“The question that Retail NI members ask is how we get local, regional and national governments all pushing in the one direction and more importantly how all these policy priorities can be delivered so we can create 21st century high streets.

“Alongside a dynamic retail and hospitality offering we also need to ensure they become multi-functional hubs with libraries, community services, police stations, healthcare, leisure, education, open spaces, housing and sports facilities.”​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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