Kingston Upon Thames High Street has historically thrived, with 18 million people visiting the area each year, however, in recent times it has faced an unprecedented challenge from e-commerce. In January 2022, according to the Retail Sales Index time series, online purchases accounted for 27.1% of the total retail sales in the UK while the corresponding figure for 2010 was just 7.4%. The prominence of online retail has been rising steadily over the last couple of decades, due to the growing convenience, choice and opportunity to source the best prices for goods however, when the COVID 19 Pandemic caused the first lockdown in the UK in March 2020, the demand for online goods suddenly skyrocketed. Many people, who perhaps would not ordinarily source goods via the internet, were forced to do so and in January 2021, online purchases rose to a peak of 37.8% of retail sales. Not only that, people of all ages turned to the internet for entertainment and communication with applications such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Facetime being used widely for work, education and leisure activities.


The meteoric rise in online activity and e-commerce has lead to many High Street casualties, with 17,000 chain shops closing down in 2021. For instance, Kingston has seen shops such as Clas Ohlson, Top Shop, Jigsaw, Cath Kidson, Carphone Warehouse and Curry’s PC world close. 


So, what does the future of the High Street look like? I spoke to Ian Crane, the owner of a local Architecture Business, who has just opened an office in a vacated retail space in Kingston. He explained that “historically the business has struggled to find an interesting and affordable office space in the Kingston/Richmond area”. However, “voids in retail spaces created by the downturn of the High Street” provided an opportunity to “rent affordable, light and airy retail spaces”. This was helped by another recent change in planning law which combined ‘retail and professional services as the same ‘use’ so no planning permission was required for architects to move into a shop’. 


Ian suggests that the future of Kingston High Street remains uncertain. He explains that “luxury retail stores” could be successful if they provide an experience for customers. He also expects the number of restaurants, cafes and flexible work spaces to increase as they provide a service that cannot be replicated easily online. Ian also suggests that there may be a rise in the number of shared office spaces for remote working and a wider presence of Kingston University.


Although the traditional High Street is under threat from the increased dominance of online retail, there are opportunities for new businesses as well as services such as dentists, doctors and therapists to thrive in the central spaces. Businesses which can provide an experience, social space or service for customers could be the way forward. What do you think the future holds for your local High Street?