Retail is being pulled apart like a chicken carcass being devoured by a fox. So why are local governments continuing to encourage the building of more retail floor space at premium rates?
Retail has been one of the hardest hit sectors of the new millennium. With the increase of online and internet banking and shopping, the high street in some parts of the country is starting to look like a ghost town on a Saturday afternoon, rather than the thriving, buzzing hive of activity it did in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Huge retail giants have fallen and some reportedly on the brink of falling apart. Woolworths, Comet and BHS to name a few. So why is there an insistence on local government to help with permission and in some cases financing certain retail developments in exchange for ‘bringing new jobs to the area’?
Today, one of the most successful retailers in the UK, the John Lewis partnership announced their figures. Early signs show that everyone is disappointed. Not only the markets, but the staff as well. Since 2013, their annual bonus has dropped from 15% in 2013, to 10% of their annual wage. Still better than doctors, nurses and teachers, I grant you, but for the staff it is a 3 year disappointment. So what is the future for retail and more importantly it’s staff and our beloved high streets?
For the hard working and ill rewarded staff, I’m afraid I can only see bleak things. It seems that no one in the retail sector wants to take a chance and make it ‘sexy’ anymore. There are no new concepts that are being delivered and very little in the ‘wow’ factor when people walk in to stores. As a store manager I used to be so frustrated by the uniformity imposed on stores by people that sometimes didn’t understand the nuances of the local area. I remember being a manager of a store with a high Indian population, but was only given 1x4ft section for Indian specific products. It took me 6 months to get somewhere and when I was eventually given 24ft, it was a huge success and outstripped the sales on the same section by nearly 2000%! The local community appreciated it and in turn gained us more customers. I appreciate that this is a simple example, but talking to people who work in retail I know this is what certain stores, that perhaps don’t perform as well as others are crying out for. And when there is a down sizing or restructuring, those are the stores that go first. Not because they’re in bad areas or in some cases badly run, but just because the big corporate giants don’t ‘get’ the needs of the local population.
It also comes down to the manager of the store and those directly above them. Yes every business is mastered by figures and statistics. Completely understand and approve of that, but the pressure that is placed upon those managers is at certain levels, life endangering. I don’t use that lightly by the way. I know of several people who have left retail from management level because it effected their health badly. But within those managers are absolute gems. They are the ones that use a hidden art. The hidden art of shop keeping. It may no longer be Arkwright from ‘Open All Hours’ style of shopkeeping anymore, but I genuinely believe that, that hidden art could help stem the tide of customers preferring to tap away at their laptops and tablets. Managers spend more time in their offices sorting out hours cuts, filling in paperwork and juggling bullshit ideas from someone in head office than they do on the shop floor actually ‘owning’ their store, connecting with their customers and seeing what really works in their stores and what doesn’t.
Staff engagement surveys are also genuinely meaningless. In some sectors of retail, making sure the staff answer their ‘happiness’ questions correctly correlates to the size of bonus, so pressure is put on colleagues to pretend their happy. How bloody pointless is that? Achieves nothing, other than a short term financial gain and no long term improvements or strategy. The art of shop keeping has died or at the very least going through a long, slow, painful death.
As for local authorities that think by creating extra retail space it will attract the big investment from the bigger players. Wrong. It doesn’t. Areas of city centres everywhere, all over the country are dying. The seemingly endless amounts of shops that are empty and are falling into disrepair are staggering, with some cities still reporting 50% of their high street stores as empty. More and more people are setting up online retail businesses because landlords and authorities see a shop and think cash. Too many towns and cities are seeing a plague. It’s probably bigger than the black death for the high street. It’s called the COSTA Plague.
Now I have no beef with COSTA itself, but how many bloody corporate coffee places do towns and cities need? And the plague seems to have metamorphosed into GREGGS also. In Worcester there are two GREGGS on back to back streets, less than 400 metres apart. Why? For the city, that makes no sense whatsoever. It needs to stop. We need a radical rethink and resurrection of the Great British High Street. Someone, somewhere needs to start taking a chance. Independents are being swallowed up and we’re not even aware of what’s happening. Local grocers going to the wall because of Sainsbury Locals and Tesco Metro’s. Retail space taken up by mobile phone accessory shops and charity shops. More and more of the public are saying they no longer go into towns and cities because they are all the same and full of “charity shops”, quote, unquote. That is not a swipe at charity shops, all credit to them, but they don’t perhaps provide the experience that people used to want and get when the high streets were in their heyday.
I can quite easily see in 10-15 years time the death of retail. there will be no one who wants to get into it. They’ll be no one who wants to take a chance and cities and countries the world over will be poorer for it. Cities full of coffee shops and chain restraints serving the same shit but on a different day. Retailers of Great Britain…wake up; smell the corporate coffee and come up with some new innovations and ideas whilst you still can!