A balanced return

As the ‘great return’ gets underway, it’s important that local businesses aren’t left behind

people standing
Getty/Kevin Smart

Leading on from our blog two weeks ago on local loyalty, as bolstered by the pandemic, I’ve been thinking again about our High Streets, and what recently relaxed COVID-19 guidance might mean for them.

With office workers heading back to city centres, albeit primarily in a hybrid, two/three days per week fashion, will the boom times for regional High Streets that we saw through the pandemic continue?

It’s a question that we cannot, as yet, know the answer to.

Whilst local businesses might be nervous at the prospect of a captive audience, bound largely to their local High Street, returning to workplaces, city centre businesses who have struggled through the past two years will be understandably glad of packed commuter trains pouring back into their inner-city locales.

I hope that what we’ll see over the next few months is an equal distribution of consumer power, with people booking appointments (read: eye exams) and spending money in our somewhat beleaguered city centres at least some of the time, whilst still being mindful of supporting their local businesses elsewhere.

After all, the rallying cry we saw to #SavePret worked – in fact, late last year the ubiquitous sandwich chain that Rishi Sunak appeared so worried about announced plans to double within five years, and after two years of COVID-19 there are still six on my four-minute walk from the train station to the office.

My conclusion? I won’t worry about the future of clearly buoyant city centre chains too much. It’s the independent businesses, whether in the middle of the city, in its suburbs or in our further-flung towns and villages, that need our support as the so-called great return gets underway.

That, of course, includes local optical practices. I really hope, as life gets busier and errands and appointments are once again crammed into lunchtimes and around commutes (perish the thought), we are able to plan our time well enough to support the independent businesses, whether healthcare, retail, or otherwise, that we have come to rely on over the past two years. Mindful consumption, whether in fashion, food shopping or how we organise our healthcare, remains vital.

From where I sit (literally, at my laptop in my living room-come-kitchen) the early signs are good. My south London High Street, with numerous bars, restaurants, charity, chain and independent shops and, yes, optical practices, has been packed ever since I moved here mid-lockdown in November 2020, with trains into the City running at maybe half capacity, and so far this doesn’t seem to have changed. Here, both chains and independent businesses thrive, and I expect that this will continue.

But London, when compared to the rest of the country, is its own beast – who knows whether this buoyancy is being replicated elsewhere, now lovingly curated home offices have been relegated to part-time use.

Meanwhile, at Optometry Today we are putting together our ‘optical business on the High Street’ edition for April/May. We’re keen to hear from a wide range of voices, so if you have thoughts or a story to tell about your local High Street, your recent experiences, or your business, please let us know on [email protected]

OT  asks...

As a practice, how do you anticipate the great return to city centres will impact your business?

  • Positive impact to business

    1 6%
  • Negative impact to business

    5 33%
  • Neutral impact to business

    9 60%