Just what happened to the UK High Street? Part Two.

In Part One (the intro) of this series of three blog posts, I alluded to the fact that (for the larger part), we're no longer customers. We're consumers. In Part Three I'll discuss what I believe to be the key approaches and behaviours we need to adopt in order to break this pattern, shop more responsibly AND ultimately more enjoyably.

In this section however we'll deal with the factors that are seeing both shoppers and traders disappear from their local High Street and turn formally bustling and busy towns into retail graveyards.  We'll look at what both government and retailers need to do in order to stand a good chance of weathering this storm. So in no particular order, here we go.

Number one. Retailer apathy.

Now I thought I'd start with this one because it's perhaps not what you'd expect me to say.  Now of course there is a lot right now for retailers to be unhappy about and that is absolutely not within their sphere of influence to fix.  However, as a starting point you have to clean up your side of the street, ensure you're doing everything to stay abreast of buying habits and ultimately make it easy for people to shop with you.  Whilst there are many retailers out there literally smashing it with their customer service and marketing; a great many are still stuck in the same patterns of operating that they were ten years ago.  And that's not good. 

An example of this would be the amount of (non essential) retailers that don't have a website because " we don't sell online" or they think it's expensive and a lot of work.  What they don't consider is that your website is quite literally your out of hours shop window.  With many potential customers now working shifts, weekends or just busy doing other things;  they might not be able to visit your store.  What they can do is however is sit on their sofa at 9pm with a glass of wine, browse your website and order something. They can then choose to collect  it at a convenient time for them;  meaning they'll actually visit your store too - result.   Any retail business that doesn't have a basic e-commerce website (and I'm not talking about a Facebook Page here) is literally depriving potential customers of the chance to shop with them. Why exactly would you do that?

Another example would be opening hours.  I was repeatedly told that opening on a Sunday was a "waste of time" and you know what, initially IT WAS. But once I consistently opened and stuck at it,  I started to see regular customers and it wasn't unusual for me to take more on that day than on the Saturday.  You see, Sunday is actually a very convenient day for many people to shop but if you're not open, they can't do that.  Unfortunately many of my fellow retailers, didn't follow suit.  Had they have done so, there would have been more reason for locals to come onto the High Street to shop and as a result there would absolutely have been cross-pollination between the businesses. 

When it comes to marketing, whether you like it or not you've gotta be social.  Now I don't believe Facebook or Instagram is going to save a business but the harsh reality is that it has to form part the marketing mix.  It's a great way of giving potential buyers a snapshot of what you do/sell, injecting your personality into what you post and linking them through to your store to purchase. The biggest challenge when it comes to social media is consistency.  Many businesses start off with great ideas and good intentions but don't maintain a solid strategy and their audience slowly falls away or doesn't actively engage.

Any successful retail business will tell you that the key to their success is their loyal customer base. As such, your email marketing list is without doubt  the most vital asset you own and yet so many still don't grasp the true value in it.  It's a proven fact that email marketing converts way more browsers into buyers than social media and if you ever come to sell your shop; the value will be much higher if you have one. People who sell their businesses so often talk about the "goodwill" element but excuse me; that's just bullshit.  If it's not tangible, it's not worth having. End of.

In fairness to shop owners, they have enough to do without also being a marketing guru and quite often funds just don't stretch to employing someone to handle this on a full time basis.   So what's the answer?  Well, e-commerce Platforms like Shopify and WIX could partner with local marketing companies or councils and host free workshops for interested retailers.   Here, businesses could learn about  building a basic but effective website, creating a mailing list and how to set up and maintain a compelling social media presence on the channels of their choice. 

Both councils and marketing companies are set to benefit from this. If a business is able to expand its online sales, it's more likely to survive long term thus creating employment and tax revenue.  And if you're a local marketing company, running a free workshop that provides massive value to your fellow local businesses and positions you as a trusted expert; chances are, they WILL use your paid services moving forwards.  I don't understand why more marketeers are offering their fellow local businesses affordable and flexible pay monthly marketing packages, to take care of social media posts, email newsletters and e-commerce updates (leaving businesses to focus fully on the customer).  If local government could provide grants specifically for these monthly marketing services; even better.

Number two: Banks closing

Look around any local UK High Street and you'll see retail businesses closing left right and centre, with service-led operators taking their place.  In the Scottish town where I had my shop (and latterly which didn't have a busy high street) there were no less than EIGHT cafes and (I kid you not) over FIFTEEN beauty salons/hairdressers.  But not one bank. Go figure. 

Now aside from the issue/questions raised around having almost no retail business on your local high street; all of these service led businesses take A LOT of cash.  And yet, increasingly, they've nowhere to bank it without having to drive to another town where there actually is a bank (deep sigh, rolls eyes).

The truth is that the availability of banking brings people into a local town and therefore exposes them to the other businesses within it.   Electricians, plumbers and mobile hairdressers all need to deposit their cash but if they have to drive out of town to do that; they won't use the local services. It's not exactly rocket science, is it?

To be fair many of the UK banks have been guilty of Number One on this list - retailer apathy. Their experience and footprint hasn't really changed over the years and consequently, it feels dated and impersonal.  Why can't we make local banks "the hub" of the community by merging them with library spaces and cafes? There could be several banks available but they could potentially share back office functionality; making it more cost effective for them to operate.    

But the banks will say "fewer people are taking cash these day" and that's indeed true but cash is still a long way off being dead just yet.  Banks just need to get better at offering other financial services and making those services more "sexy", so that if there ever is a point that cash ceases to exist; it doesn't matter.  In the five years I had my shop, there were continual approaches from card machine vendors but not one of them was from a local bank.  Both my static and my mobile (Sum up) card machines were from other providers.  I guarantee you if banks offered a PDQ machine with competitive rates as part of their business banking package; they'd have more local businesses switching their accounts.  As a result of that, they'd have more shops depositing their cash takings with them, allowing them to justify staying open whilst encouraging more visitors onto the local high street. Here endeth that particular sermon. 

Number three: Parking charges. 

Sometimes our pet peeves have no real logic, other than that they just p*ss us off, right?  This is one such issue.  Nowadays shoppers get really pithy about paying for parking - no matter how inexpensive.  Local councils who charge for parking just drive shoppers into nearby malls where they can park for free.  Okay, they've probably used more money in petrol getting there but hey,  I didn't promise you logic on this point did I?  

It's just a massive bug bear and like the banks, local councils are totally guilty of retailer apathy on this one.  Charging for parking is easy money so they're reluctant to drop it.  However, local government just needs to get more creative and find alternative ways of putting money into the coffers (see point six guys). One that doesn't involve charging customers to park when they've had the good grace to even turn up in your town in the first place.

Number four: Local industry has gone. 

Unless you've the good fortune to exist on a high street within a town that has its own tourism industry OR you're trading in a wealthy city enclave, nowadays you'll struggle to get enough footfall in your store to make it worthwhile.  But it wasn't always this way...

When I lived in Scotland, I lived very close to a town called Kilmarnock.  Like many UK towns their high street has progressively lost the air from its lungs and is now full of takeaways, mobile 'phone repair shops and salons.  Service businesses, in effect.  Banks and retailers are all falling away and the previously busy shopping street has a handful of people milling around at any given time.   Go back twenty years and this was a very different picture. 

You see, like so many of our regional towns, Kilmarnock used to have major manufacturing industries and therefore employment.  As a result people would actively use the high street in their lunch break or on the way home.  Once large employers leave, so does your passing trade.  In addition, due to the proximity to Glasgow (which is only 20-25 minutes away) people who live in Kilmarnock now have to travel to the city for their work. So guess where they shop?

I'm originally from a town in the North West of England called Widnes. Even closer to Liverpool than Kilmarnock is to Glasgow and smack bang off the M62 motorway (which gives fast access to other towns such as Manchester and Warrington). Because of it's location, Widnes is becoming increasingly larger and the North of the town is now virtually merged with Liverpool.  People don't live in Widnes, they sleep there.

If I'm honest, I'm really not sure what the solution is here. People have to work and if that means travelling then of course they're going to do that.  We can't revive industries simply out of a sense of nostalgia, if they're no longer viable. Maybe we just need to create new ones....

(It could just be however that the Covid-19 lockdown has created an opportunity here. Read on).

Number Five: Where have all the markets gone?

Market days used to exist in most UK towns (and some villages).   They are a great way of pulling people into the area to shop, spend money and they help build the community.  PLUS market traders tend to take cash and therefore will use local banking facilities. 

Markets come in all shapes and sizes; so there's potentially room for several in any one town. There's your typical once/twice a week outdoor food market or the travelling market that rolls into town on a certain day each week, selling everything from hats to hardware. Then there's the mini indoor markets that still exist in some towns; where you can get keys cut, have your shoes repaired or browse all kinds of random shit you just didn't know existed.  To me, the word market embodies choice, value and uniqueness and I'd be shopping there for an experience I just wouldn't get in a high street store. 

But if people are travelling outside of the town for employment, what's the point in markets, I hear you say?  Well, if you'd put that to me six months ago, I'd have shrugged my shoulders in resignation but since Covid-19, I'm not so sure. During lockdown, workers have been forced to do their jobs remotely (where they can) and therefore they're spending way more time at home. Guess what? The job is still getting done.

With this in mind,  I've no doubt that moving forwards employers will be crunching the numbers and coming to the conclusion that perhaps they don't need to be spending money on huge shiny offices; when people can work perfectly effectively at home.  In turn, this shift change means we're using our local facilities a lot more or maybe even for the first time.  This potential increased demand, creates new opportunity and allows us to think both differently and expansively about what we want to see on our High Streets moving forward.  How does this look for you?    

For me, it's a disused departmental store or library building that the local council have redeveloped into a (kind of) market.   It's airy and well lit, urban in feel and it's buzzing.  Many people have found employment since it opened and everyone who lives in the town, uses the space to meet their friends, socialise and shop. There's excellent and free Wi-FI, so those customers include home workers, who often come here to work, have a coffee and escape the house.  There's lots of independent cafe's and eateries. These open early in the morning until late into the evening (when they turn into restaurants) and they cater for a wide range of tastes.  There's also an amazing virtual library and learning area, where people can expand their knowledge over a cup of tea or coffee and in another section of the building, are the banks. And although they're charged a premium rent; they benefit enormously from both the businesses and shoppers, who use them daily. 

Then there are the "pods".  These pods are small stalls where local independent artists and traders can display, produce and sell their goods.  It's like a physical version of Etsy. The council don't charge rent for these pods (initially) but traders have to apply for them on a three monthly basis.  If after twelve months they're still busy and want to keep their pod; at that point a low rent is charged.   These traders often stay open at night when there are lots of people eating and drinking (and spending).

Altrincham market hall in Cheshire. A massive local success.

Now I honestly don't care if you think this idea is a bag of crap or will never work. The main point is that I have one. You could have a better strategy (chances are you do).  My point is that we need to think differently about our local high street, how we want it to look and how we use it.  We need to get involved in the discussion.

Number Six: Online

Short and sweet this one folks. We've not only partly covered it in number one but we'll also delve further into how physical selling needs to compete and differentiate itself from virtual selling in part three. 

The fact is that online has been demonised as the single factor in the demise of our high street and if you go back to the plane crash theory; well that's just insane. Sure, it's a factor but it's not the only factor.  It's touted far too much and given way too much bandwidth. Not here my friend.

Number Seven: The Primark Business Model (Fashion Retail)

(Ooohh this one makes my blood boil). 

In my opinion, the Primark business model is destroying fashion retail.  Don't get me wrong; it's a great model in its place:  but when everyone is pursuing it; well it's an unmitigated disaster. What works for Primark does not work for everyone else - not even the other big guys.  This is evidenced by the sheer volume of names that we've lost in the last two years and the number of locations being shed by Department Stores. For many of these, ladies fashion is on the ground floor because (at least traditionally) it's a major source of revenue.  And if you can't make money with that any more; well it's just not worth being there, is it?

Now let's take a trip down memory lane for just a second and look at a small ladies boutique operating in a small town and owned by Samantha.  It's thirty years ago. There's plenty of employment, (so there's a steady stream of traffic) and people tend to use the town rather than travel to the city.  

Samantha buys her clothing from her chosen suppliers in advance and she buys in two main seasons - Autumn Winter and Spring Summer.  Her orders are delivered to her for each season in 2-3 drops and she only goes into sale twice a year (once in January and once in June/July).   Because she has a steady stream of customers, her stock is constantly exposed to new shoppers and she can sell through styles reasonably quickly and without having to discount.  Straight away (and if you've been reading this from the beginning), you'll see that Samanthas business model wouldn't go very far in 2020.

Fashion retail in the UK has ended up in a position where it is literally prostituting itself to get sales and I'm not sure any other retail sector is as toxic.  So, why exactly is the Primark business model such an issue?

  • Shoppers are now too focused on price over quality.
  • Shoppers are now too focused on quantity over quality.
  • Shoppers now massively over consume fashion without thinking - they expect to see newness every single week.
  • Shoppers are buying for instant gratification not long term enjoyment.
  • Shoppers expect constant sales and they're used to seeing 70% off*.

Sale Shoppers: Seriously, are they being thrown food?

Like I said earlier, I'm not bashing Primark for their business model because the truth is, it works for them.  What I'm angry is that retailers (especially the other giants) have capitulated to it and created an environment in which it's increasingly difficult to turn a profit.  If they are finally realising they can't make it work; what chance does a small high street boutique have? 

* by the way, if you're buying at 70% off from a small retailer, they're losing money. Primark is not. 

When you have decreasing numbers on your High Street, when customers want to see newness every week (so after 2-3 weeks your stock is already "old" to your small customer base) and when you're battling a shopping mentality that is so unhealthy;  it is no surprise that small boutiques are disappearing.  At this rate we're going to end up with a High Street that's so faceless and homogenised; it will drain your soul just to be there. What a tragedy. 

(Whilst there are some large retailers weathering the storm and bucking the trend (Zara), they are the exception and not the rule.  As a smaller operator, unless you exist in a town where there is employment, banks, tourism and good parking, you're pretty much screwed. That's before you even have to deal with this poisonous business model). 

Think about it for a moment. Just what are your expectations of fashion retailers (large or small)?  You probably expect them to go into 70% off several times a year and you've possibly asked a small boutique to give you a discount on a full priced item.   You've also maybe (tut tut) worn an item with the tags still on and then returned it for a refund. 

Now, let me flip this on its head and apply this logic to a service business (who arguably you spend more money with annually).  Would you go into your hairdresser in January (when they're traditionally quieter) and ask for 70% off your haircut?  Would you wear your acrylic nails for two weeks and then go back to your beauty salon and ask for your money back?  I don't need your answer because no, of course you wouldn't.

Co-incidentally, it's not your fault.  Quite honestly, you view fashion retail with the contempt it deserves.  It has routinely cheapened itself and offered you no depth of experience; so as a consequence, you give it no quality time. Your relationship with it is purely transactional.  

So, how do we get our mojo back?  Well, in part two and for the main we've looked at the role that local government and retailers have to play; along with the practical steps they might take to turn the tide.  

We also touched on the psychology of shopping and how our view (in particular of fashion retail) is neither serving ourselves nor the retailers.  In Part 3 we'll look at how we need to think differently about the high street and just how shops can help us do that. 





Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published