In my last post I argued that we already have too many shops and that developers need to wake up and smell the coffee. I have also previously contended that there is a future for independent retailers – no matter how small or niche – that use technology to enhance their visibility and create a sense of community around them.
Now, a recent Retail Week article celebrating their 25th Anniversary has asked industry leaders to predict what the next twenty-five years have in store. Some of their answers should give hope to independent retailers, and a lot sooner than you might think. But, like it or not, much of the future will be determined by acceptance of the internet!
Firstly, I think we have to acknowledge that buying music, books, and film, by any other means than the internet is now pretty much the preserve of the purist or hobbyist. We could have a lively debate about whether this is ‘good for us’ as a society but one would have to be distinctly Canutist to even contemplate pushing back that particular tide. But whilst there is still a pre-net generation around that appreciates the hunt for these items in their old-fashioned form either for scholarly, acquisitive, or serendipitous reasons, isn’t there an opportunity for independents to feed off their niche interests?
And the internet isn’t all bad for a number of other reasons. Retail Week’s article quotes Tim Steiner, chief executive of online retailer Ocado as predicting that as much as 60% of grocery shopping will go online within 10-20 years. He would say that of course, but if only 10-20% shifts online it will justify my argument that out-of-town ‘superstores’ are outmoded and wasteful. But more importantly, once all bulky grocery items – and probably most white goods – are ordered online and whisked to your door or collection point by white van, there is a tremendous opportunity for community and convenience shops to supply the daily needs of shoppers, be that milk, wine, meat, fish, or fresh fruit and vegetables; in fact anything requiring choice and discrimination on the part of the purchaser.
As a society we are struggling with the competing demands for new homes versus green space. Therefore should land already sullied by failing out-of-town developments be turned over to housing – halting the destruction of more green field sites – and should we think again about the future role of town centres; accepting that more people will live there, and others will go there for reasons other than shopping. That might be to access entertainment, culture or experiences, and to some extent that is already happening. In my own town I can think of two small independent shops that on the face of it don’t look viable to my retail eye. One sells costume jewellery, the other pottery, but I suspect neither makes the bulk of their turnover this way. One runs bead stringing and jewellery making parties and events for kids, while the other gives children and their grown up minders the chance to make and decorate pottery. Both shops are ‘experiential’ in their offering; they may not be Disneyland but they provide entertainment and satisfy a craving for hand- made authenticity. Are they a sign of things to come?
Another of Retail Week’s experts predicts that the proliferation of mobile gadgets will mean that retailers will instantly be able to check their competitors’ prices, matching them if they wish, and levelling the price playing field. The theory goes that when selling commodities there are only two things you can flex – either price or relationships – to make your offer more attractive. Therefore with price competition largely out of the picture in the future, the service received from their supplier may be the principle determining factor for customers. Again, excellent service has – at least in theory – long been the maxim for independent businesses, so this really could prove to be fertile ground for them.
As a former spokesperson for the retail jewellery sector, I often expressed the view that the UK’s jewellery manufacturers should give up the unequal fight with mass market Chinese factories and refocus their businesses on fulfilling the individual needs of discerning customers in the UK. My argument – which seldom won me any friends – was that by working in conjunction with jewellers they could achieve rapid turn-around on customised or unique designs made to customers’ own specifications; thus satisfying clients’ desire to own something individual and authentic, and at the same time pandering to their ‘creative’ urge. Already achievable using traditional techniques, CAD / CAM technology increased the possibilities, but now with the advent of 3D printers we could see a step change in jewellers’ ability to respond to demand. Could this be another opportunity?
Lastly, I read in the papers about research which shows that high-street jewellers are closing in favour of online providers. I’m not sure I wholly accept that gloomy conclusion, and believe that there is still a strong desire for human interaction in certain shopping scenarios. For instance, the skills of a jeweller are a reassurance when making an expensive purchase and can guide your hand when designing your own unique piece, whilst your fishmonger or butcher harnesses his abilities to help you select the very best fresh produce. In these, and many other instances, technology is no more than an enabler, and not a complete substitute for the human touch. Isn’t it in just these circumstances that the independent still has an opportunity to excel, and will continue to do so well into the future provided they take strategic decisions now?
Oxford is a beautiful city, of that there is no doubt, but put together its historic street layout, listed buildings, and the colleges who own most of it, and it’s a pretty toxic mixture for retailers. Just like York and similar cities its streets are clogged with tourists and cars, and the City Council has tried to ease the blockage with a combination of sky high parking charges and a park and ride scheme which find no favour with local traders.
Any way you look at it Oxford has never been great for shopping. City centre traders can’t seem to figure out who they serve. Is it residents, tourists and day trippers, or the vast transient population of students from its two universities? The main shopping thoroughfare, Queen Street, and nearby pedestrian areas are a mish-mash of high street chains that don’t seem to serve anybody’s needs very well, but there are interesting enclaves, and at one end of the shopping area is Oxford’s famous Covered Market. It’s both tourist hotspot for those in search of ‘authentic’ Oxford, and historic pervayor of fresh foods to residents and colleges alike. At the other end is the ‘never-quite-successful’ Westgate Centre which has no visible anchor and is an odd mix of middling retail offers. Plans for its redevelopment have been bogged down for approaching two decades, and it’s a bit of a sickly child.
So the city is an uneasy mixture of the old and the newish, and I suspect that most residents of greater Oxford source their everyday needs from satellite centres like, Cowley, Rose Hill, Summertown, Headington, and Botley Road, and only venture into the centre if they really must. Now, however it is faced with so many retail redevelopments its mind boggling, and a text book example of how lack of planning, laissez faire development , and competing interests can go awry, with the residents and traders of Oxford potentially the ultimate losers.
At one end of town the cash strapped City Council is trying to impose rent increases reported to be as high as 70% on the Covered Market traders. Many, faced with falling footfall exacerbated by lack of short stay parking, say this is the final straw and that the market will soon be lost to the ubiquity of the multiples who can afford the rents. Meanwhile at the other end of the town, plans to redevelop the Westgate Centre, and double its size to seventy units at the cost of £400 million, are back on track again.
So far so good! Nobody denies Westgate needs serious attention, but those of a suspicious frame of mind might see this as a classic ‘Daniel and Goliath’ scenario. But now throw in the plans, which have just been given the go ahead, to revamp Seacourt Retail Park, about two miles west of the city centre, at a cost of £15 million to create a reported extra 5,000 sq. metres of retail space in ten new units; but with the loss of a local amenity – the only petrol station on that side of the city. And finally, factor in plans by Doric Properties to tear down Elms Parade – a row of popular local, 1930’s vintage, shops – in favour of a multi-screen cinema, chain restaurant, and large supermarket. A development, it should be acknowledged, that is not 1000 metres from the Seacourt Retail Park, and which will reportedly involve the demolition of a church and valued sheltered accommodation for forty elderly residents!
It’s a classic dilemma! In the city centre a beacon of independent retail and bastion of the foodie culture is being squeezed to death, meanwhile on the outskirts unnecessary, unwanted and unproductive retail space is being allowed at the expense of local amenities. I’m not against retail development, far from it, but can’t developers and planners see that the writing is on the wall for such developments? Haven’t they noticed the revolution in ecommerce that means we need far less shops than we did during the consumer bubble? Haven’t they cottoned on to the fact that major multiples don’t need 400 units to achieve national coverage anymore and can get the same results with a fraction of the space and a great transactional website? Hasn’t their dinner table chat revealed to them that a diminishing number of their friends and colleagues set off for the office every day, but work from home or car?
A decade or more of rampant consumerism disguised some shoddy retail offerings undeserving of loyal support. Plus a bloated property market has fuelled speculative shop building to the point where we simply have too many. Shops in the wrong places, the wrong size, built as a sop to planners, or built for ego sake. Shops that nobody wants, needs, supports, or values. So why do property companies and pension funds plough on with their pointless and ill fated retail schemes regardless of the evidence that is all around them? Why are they locked into a mind-set that discounts the new reality?
We’ve been woefully over shopped for more than a decade, and the superstore mentality has leeched the life blood out of too many wonderful towns whilst at the same time our growing population is crying out for homes that are close to amenities, work opportunities and travel hubs. It’s not as though either Seacourt or Botley can be justified as being incubators for new retail talent or offering a leg up to emerging businesses in dire economic times. They’re only outcome will be to further subdivide a diminishing retail cake. Why not keep the 1930’s shops and the petrol station and the local amenities, but tear down the empty shops and offices and replace them with homes?
Aren’t better shops rather than more shops the answer for Oxford and many other cities?
So another series of Channel 4’s Mary Queen of the High Street has come to a close and once again it’s time to pop down town and see what progress has been made. It’s a year since The Portas Review was handed to the government and still, despite Portas’ best efforts, her conclusions have been mainly ignored by bureaucrats with much huffing and puffing about the localism agenda that was supposed to breathe new life into communities and restore decision making to the grass roots.
At the time of its launch Portas said she wasn’t prepared to let her report end up gathering dust on a shelf in some government department, the fate of its fifteen predecessors. Having been sceptical initially I welcomed the twenty eight point vision that was the result of her deliberations, but from the very start I warned that politicians would adopt the sexy attention grabbing bits but kick the difficult stuff into the long grass.
So it has proved, with much vaunted competitions for meagre grants towards town teams making headlines, but the difficult stuff being ignored. However, Portas is nothing if not a fighter and has the chutzpah and the media presence to keep the issue alive on our television screens, hopefully keeping politicians on their toes to boot. Mind you they seem pretty immune to embarrassment to me – shrugging off their promises without a backward glance – so even Mary has a job on, and with no help from retail pundits who have been queuing up to give her a kicking. Personally, I may not like her style and find her programmes formulaic, but I can’t fault her energy!
The problem as I see it is that shopkeepers and customers alike are looking for a saviour – someone to magic all the nastiness away – and that isn’t going to happen without a paradigm shift. It took over a decade of greed, mismanagement and neglect for high streets to get this bad and it will take at least as long for them to be revived. Portas may come across as the pantomime dame of retail to some commentators but at least she has the presence to embarrass others into action. And that includes small retailers, who must shoulder their fair share of the blame for surrendering to complacency and cynicism.
Liskeard, which featured last in the series, seemed a pretty good example of all that is wrong with the high street. Not only were rent, rates, and parking a real problem as in most small towns, but the shopkeepers seemed to have surrendered all responsibility for their immediate environment to some higher power. Look how excited they all were when Portas ‘empowered’ them to clean up their own street. Hadn’t anybody ever thought of scrubbing their front step before? It appears not! The demise of the livestock market and the laissez fair approach to town planning – which had landed them with an out of town supermarket – had also contributed to their woes; sucking the life out of the centre – and most of the shopkeepers – or so it would seem. With few exceptions they appeared to have fallen into the familiar ‘somebody should do something’ mindset, and yet were deeply resentful when somebody did! That and the very ‘independence’ which is both the blessing and the curse of small business people looked destined to blight any thought of collective action.
But, to be fair they’re not small shop keepers because they’re marketing strategists, schooled in creating brand identity and fostering loyalty to it. Nor have they been rigorously trained, or selected for their special business aptitude. The big retailers are, plus they’re not hamstrung by feelings of loyalty or a sense of belonging. If a project fails, they simply walk away leaving their mess behind; small retailers just don’t see things in the same way as their bigger brethren! But apart from the obvious structural and conceptual barriers, the traders of Liskeard also appeared to lack leadership, motivation, and vision, or a channel for their rage against faceless landlords and unbending bureaucracy that renders them impotent. Portas herself came in for some flak for allegedly being in the government’s pocket, a charge she vehemently denied! Personally, I reckon she should give up trying to fix broken high streets single-handedly; her critics can stop kicking her for not being the saviour of their dreams; and she can get on with doing what she does best – irritating people!
If we really want to save the high street we should encourage her to irritate the hell out politicians, landlords, bureaucrats, and the forces of ubiquity and mediocrity that have brought us to this shameful state. Isn’t it time the dust was blown off the Portas Review, and politicians got to grips with series issues contained within? Come to that why aren’t all shopkeepers demanding an explanation from government?
I’ll soon be promoting my services through this page – but whilst we get this webpage up and running, feel free to get in with me via my contact page.