Just what happened to the UK High Street?: Part Three

I’ve always loved fashion and clothes shopping.  I remember as a young child going into small department stores and shoe shops with my mum and looking around in wonderment.  Even now, I can recall the most fabulous pair of fern green leather wedges in a window that I ogled each week on our visit to the local high street. I was maybe five or six at the time.

By the time I was a teenager, every weekend I’d travel into Liverpool city centre to find something new to wear and somewhere new to buy.  I revelled in finding unusual things and was so good at it that my friends used to give me their pocket money to find stuff for them too.  Even in my teens and early twenties, I was never really interested in faddy trends and always sought out the unusual.

But in my mid-twenties I had a shopping epiphany, following a long weekend trip to Rome.  Now, if you’ve every visited Italy, you’ll understand that a big part of their culture is taking pleasure in life’s’ experiences.  Conversation is an art form, meals are savoured and in the Roman evenings; you’ll see the locals out on “passeggiata “. This night time leisurely stroll involves putting on beautiful clothing and maybe eating a gelato as you chat to your companion.

They had me at the smell.

Italians don’t consume. They savour.  Their attitude to shopping (and clothes shopping in particular), is no different and as salespeople they’re intoxicating. 

Before I went on my Rome trip I purchased a black leather backpack with a bamboo handle from an upmarket shoe shop here in the UK and that cost me over £300.  I was very proud of this backpack and felt it would be the perfect and practical accessory for my weekend away.  Or so I thought.

On the first day of my trip, I visited a “pelletteria”, not far from the Spanish Steps.  Upon walking into the shop, I was hit by the heady smell of the leather and was greeted by an older lady who immediately noticed my backpack and gestured to see it.  As I handed the bag over she began to inspect it closely and then proceeded to tell me what a total piece of crap it really was.  She explained that the stitching was poor, the handle was flimsy and that the leather was cheap. So obviously I left with another (better) backpack.  (Two weeks later and back in the UK; the bamboo handle fell off my black one).

Then there was the visit to the silk shop.  Sets of polished wooden drawers and cabinets with glass fronts and the smell of furniture polish.  An immaculately dressed and tanned Italian man in his 60’s spent time finding me the most beautiful Christian Dior scarf, that I still have and wear to this day. I remember the sense of anticipation and excitement as he opened the drawers to show me and my friend (who also bought a scarf) things he thought we might like.  He spoke about the craftsmanship of the pieces, their longevity and the pleasure we’d get wearing from wearing them.  Another visit to a Pharmacia  (Italian chemists are nothing like British ones) to buy a pair of Dolce and Gabanna sunglasses, saw the assistant take my purchase and proceed to clean the frames and lenses before beautifully gift wrapping them, all the time happily chatting to me about my visit to the city.

Shopping is an experience and it’s all about setting the stage.

Italians understand the theatre of shopping. Before they open; shop owners can be seen out early in the morning and preparing for the day ahead.  They brush and hose down the pavement outside their stores, polish the windows and sills before moving onto the inside to rearrange their stock, clean and ensure everything looks immaculate.   They understand that shopping is a sensory experience and nothing can be left to chance if you want to make your space somewhere customers want to be (and ultimately spend).  

Although this attitude may have existed in the UK in days gone by;  it’s been dead for decades and the only other place you might see this now is on Bond Street or Mayfair.  However Italians don’t comply with the thought process that you have to be spending thousands of pounds to have a great experience.  In fact, I remember one of the sales assistants in Rome telling me about a well known Italian saying that goes along the lines of “we don’t believe you have to spend lots of money to look good”.

If you deprive people of something for long enough; they’ll find something else.

Unless you’re over the age of thirty - maybe even thirty five - it’s very likely (and somewhat depressing) that you’ve never had a sensory shopping experience.  Well, at least not here in the UK, where we’ve steadily been robbing customers of actual customer service.  

Take my visit to the posh end of Glasgow five years ago to buy a designer handbag.  I’d seen the one I wanted online but when you’re spending £900 you kind of want to see, touch and smell the merchandise.  So with this in mind, I set off for the store (owned by Mike Ashley, rhymes with snooze).  It was mid week and I was the only person in the shop, so you’d think the sales assistants would be in a rush to assist me.  Apparently not.  After I’d searched (in vain) for the bag I wanted to buy but couldn’t find; I approached the sales desk where I was greeted by a nineteen year old with chipped nail polish.    I asked her if I could see the style I’d seen online.  She said no (because it was only available online) and that’s pretty much where it was left.  No attempt to show me other styles, no attempt to chat to me like a human being.  Nada. Nothing. Niente.

So I left and bought the handbag online.  The morale of this story?  If this is what we consider to be acceptable customer service in the luxury sector of UK retail; then quite frankly, we’re shagged.  Minimum wage, disinterested sales attendants are barely acceptable in Top Shop and Zara but when you’re spending BIG money and that’s what you’re greeted with, well you may as well buy online.

Let’s stop consuming.  Let’s start savouring.

“Romans seek out the artisans who follow their own tastes rather than trends and create unique items instead of brand collections. Dressing in Rome is not just about the fashion of the moment, but having those special touches in a wardrobe, those pieces that last a lifetime and represent the best of Italian artisanal work.”  FORBES MAGAZINE ARTICLE. 

Italians are taught that it’s important to seek out quality over quantity and although they love shopping; they don’t do it every week and they don’t bulk buy.   They spend a decent proportion of their budget (let’s say around seventy per cent) on well made investment pieces.   Whilst they love designer brands, they only buy what they believe is actual quality and strangely; they’re not materialistic.  For them, dressing well is part of the enjoyment of life and in oneself.  It’s a way (along with conversation, eating and learning) to have a sensory experience here on earth.  To invest in yourself out of self love and not through some desire to simply have more or impress other people.

Unfortunately the UK customer is now so accustomed to the Primark business model and the lack of shopping experience; for the main they’re no longer engaged customers, they’re just consumers.  They bulk buy sub standard fashion because that’s what advertisers have trained them to do and also because they don’t really know what they want in the first place.  Much of their purchases remain unworn with the tags still on, only to be advertised on Facebook marketplace months later.  Like I said in the previous blog, it’s not their fault; they’ve been taught to shop this way.

So are bloggers and vloggers the new sales assistants?

Given that we’re not delivering any depth of experience on our high street; it’s no wonder that young women are turning to social media for advice.   But here’s the catch.  Whilst the bloggers and vloggers are doing an excellent job at selling products; they’re generally promoting the wares of major high street retailers with whom they have affiliation deals and who they earn money from.  So the small local high street clothing stores (who are doing a great job and are delivering a great experience), now have both the challenge of rapidly dwindling footfall AND a social media influencer community who don’t want to engage with them.  Subsequently, the potential customer isn’t receiving the information they need to rethink their shopping behaviours. 

The best example of an effective and engaged fashion vlogger (in my opinion at least), is Trinny Woodall. Her regular “Zara shop ups” are essential viewing.  As a stylist of many, many years, she showcases both products that are investment pieces and also ones that are more throwaway.  She explains what body shapes they might work for and how to style them.  I’ve not seen another influencer yet do as good a job as her and because Trinny isn’t affiliated to Zara; she’ll happily call out what is cheap crap and therefore best avoided.  More importantly, because her motivation isn’t in earning Zara money; she’s totally customer focused.

Can you imagine the power that an influencer such as Trinny Woodall would wield if she did her shop ups in beautiful independent boutiques?  (probably not realistically possible for her as she’s pretty busy running her beauty empire).  She actually did an excellent piece about a year or two ago, where she visited small boutique-y type shops in Notting Hill and showcased their products.   If we want to change our toxic ways and save our precious high streets;  this is precisely the kind of approach we need from our UK influencer community and it doesn’t just have to apply to fashion.

We all need to play our part.

There’s a lot of talk around saving our high street but seemingly not much action. At least not effective action.  Oh yes, there’s talk of lowering business rates but trust me on this; if you’ve got great footfall and happy customers, (as a store) that’s the least of your worries.  

The truth is that it’s not just up to UK and local government to step up here.   As retailers we need to engage with our MP’s so that they can see the world through our eyes and start helping change the things that really matter to us.   As customers we need to focus on more on enjoying our purchases, rather than mindlessly consuming.  And in order to do that we need our influencer community to be more focused on helping us, as opposed to making money for major names  (in doing so, they’ll probably get greater engagement and make more money anyway). 

As for me.  Well I’m in the process of moving my retail business online but I’ve decided that I’ll use my blog and social channels to not only promote my own products but where appropriate; those of other physical fashion stores.  It’s a small step but hopefully one in the right direction.













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