The high street isn’t dead. But the past decade’s financial greed resulting in every high street looking and feeling the same needs to end, and it should be used as the inspiration and stimulation for a new plan. Says James Hempsall OBE, co-director of www.harrimanandco.com
Shame on those financiers, who not content with fuelling the financial crash, have been hell-bent on foisting upon us a diluted offer best described as ‘retail average’. Their cynical experiment has failed. And shame on the landlords who have made things worse by appearing content to stick with a status quo of extortionate rents and the unsustainable and often temporary occupation they facilitate.
Both have resulted in the same shop being present in almost every high street, offering our towns and cities little or no point of difference. Instead, an indistinguishable personality and predictable offers. All delivered with the chatter of scripted discourse prioritising mystery customer scores. All over and above our proper mission of deriving real pleasure, real relationships and real loyalty from actual customers.
The outcome is empty units, a proliferation of charity shops. The same shops and brands all closed in great swathes. Ghosts of their former selves, the empty stores are decaying where once trusted brands stood. Constant and concrete reminders of childhood Saturdays, memories of buying a first suit, and the long-forgotten excitement of furnishing a new home. These stores will continue to fade away, grabbing the headlines in their death-throes.
Unsurprisingly customers have roundly rejected much of it, or at best continued to down-grade their expectations and endure lack-lustre experiences. They feel uninspired, unsafe, and unvalued whilst the high street crumbles around them.
This sorry state of affairs must make way for a new offer, and big business still has a role to play in making that change happen. They hold the blame and they have the responsibility to create the necessary change. It’s not only their fault, the doomsayers who just don’t understand the high street and what people want from us, and truly believe it is about to flatline need to alter their attitudes as well.
It’s time for a new high street plan, but we will all have to be patient. And the biggest opportunities are all about scale. Most of the high street is not big business, and the sums just don’t add up. The first opportunity is we need to revise expectations around income, expenditure, rates and rent. They are so out of kilter it is no wonder so many new start-ups struggle to make ends meet and are suspended in a hand-to-mouth state, and why the biggest retailers find themselves in huge financial holes, in which they have been digging deeper and deeper in recent years.
Who is it in head office who thinks their bright ideas for huge flagship stores actually match the reality of customer demand? Our second opportunity is to change the physicality of the high street. The infrastructure is too big, it just does not reflect the current level of demand or space required for retail and food and beverage offers alone. This results in occupied premises being spread marmite-thin across a town-centre. Town planners need to use their levers, business rates relief, rent control, transport policies, and other powers creatively to radically transform the bricks and mortar of the high street. And if they haven’t got such powers, then government should legislate to bring them in. In Leicester the council has actually been buying empty units, and knocking them down to better offer routes for the customer and linking retail areas by reflecting how they really move around. Brilliant!
The third is the supply chain is neglectful of small retailers. Wholesale suppliers need to be much more supportive of the smaller independent trader, and not skewed to advantage the bigger players. They need to promote smaller ordering, affordable shipping costs, realistic credit control, and identify new ways of satisfying what customers want from their high street, online and order fulfilment services. Customers still want to see and experience products, to sit on them, try them on, smell them, and taste them. But they want to be able to take them home now, or receive their no-hassle delivery efficiently and promptly.
The high street is not dead, nor is it dying, look carefully and it is being reborn before your eyes, and more can be done to transform it for generations to come, if we think big and be brave enough to be small.