At first glance, German city centres haven't changed much since the corona crisis started. Granted, there are fewer shoppers out and about. But the retailers are all open again.
Scratch beneath the surface though and you'll see a fundamental shift taking place.
A wave of bankruptcies threatens to hit the retail industry in the autumn. The planned closure of 50 or more Galeria Karstadt Kaufhof department stores could be just the start.
The German Retail Association (HDE) warns that the crisis could kill off around 50,000 shops.
“The inner cities are facing a triple tsunami: structural change in retail, digitalisation and the corona pandemic,” says Boris Hedde, head of the Cologne Institute for Retail Research (IFH).
The fashion industry in particular is experiencing a massive rupture: from Appelrath Cüpper to Hallhuber to Sinn, from Esprit to Tom Tailor – many high street brands are struggling.
Esprit alone plans to close around half of its stores nationwide – some 50 outlets – as part of its restructuring efforts.
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Faced with pressure from online retail and “fast-fashion” outlets like Primark, several companies were already struggling before the pandemic. The coronavirus hit those with pre-existing conditions, so to speak.
Empty department stores
The decline of the city centre poses serious problems. History shows that it is difficult to find a new use for department stores, which are too big and old to be attractive to new tenants.
In Rüsselsheim, the old Karstadt store stood empty for 19 years before being demolished this spring. Apartments and a citizens' office will now be built there. The Karstadt in Delmenhorst has been empty for eleven years.
If Galeria Karstadt Kaufhof were an isolated case, concerns would be less. But the retail giant is not alone.
But experts see opportunities too.
The often indistinguishable high streets are hardly dear to the hearts of most Germans. In an IFH survey last year of more than 59,000 city centre visitors in 116 cities, consumers said that gave the the shops a score of 2 from five.
The question is: how can they be adapted to an uncertain future?
The president of the German Association of Cities and Towns, Leipzig's Lord Mayor Burkhard Jung (SPD), also wants to make “more living and working” possible in the city centre again, in order to save shops from collapsing.
“Tradesmen, services, furniture or DIY stores and food discounters will return to the inner cities,” predicts retail expert Hedde.
For some shopping streets away from the city centres, the coronavirus crisis could even open up new perspectives, Hedde believes.
“The willingness of consumers to accept long distances when shopping is declining. Convenience and the desire to shop close to home is increasing,” he says.
“If the home office gains in importance in the long term as a result of the coronavirus crisis, this can also breathe new life into locations away from the city centres, which seemed to have no longer any perspective,” he adds.