Retail …has it anywhere to go?

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Just occassionally, I read, hear, see a bit of news which for a fleeting second, says to me

bloody ‘ell, I said that would happen two years ago

And just fleetingly, I think ….I am Bloody good at this, should I have been a predictive analyst…or written a book like ‘Future Shock-Alvin Toffler 1970’ ….until rapid realization dumps me back to ground level , when I think about the hundreds of other predictions that I got, and still get, wrong.

So I am very wary of so called ‘experts’ in their field making predictions, when in my experience, they make as many bloomers. Yet, I have just read an article by Mary Portas, not someone I always agree with, but the essence of what she says resonating with some thoughts of my own, I felt they are worth examining .Without blowing my own trumpet, actually I will, one example she discusses , I highlighted and wrote about a couple of years ago (July 2018, to be exact) but will come back to that later.

I make no apologies for cutting and pasting Mary’s article , but it would be a waste of time just paraphrasing…..

It’s a new economy that businesses have to get used to, one that’s built on a new value system. If you look at the past 30 years, consumerism has been peaking and the whole infrastructure of retailers has been around who is the biggest, the fastest, the cheapest. It’s all been down to operations rather than an understanding of how people are living.

Big retailers will give you many reasons why the high street is failing and this won’t be among them. The first reason they give is the internet, the second is the economic climate, that most people are strapped for cash, and the third has been the uncertainty of Brexit.

Of course, all of these play a part, but the biggest reason has been that we’ve changed our value system as people. What we’ve come to realise as a society is that the tenets of capitalism, that ‘more equals better’, is not going to be better for us as people or for our planet.

The bit here I don’t agree with is the last sentence. Certainly, there is a proportion of society that I would agree with,but for the majority(who have a disposable income )I think it just a little more straightforward do I need more stuff?

However, the next short quote, I am in total agreement…

The businesses that can connect with people as people, not merely consumers, will start generating a whole new way of shopping.

 

A great example is Eat 17: a couple of lads from Walthamstow [north-east London] saw the local Spar and thought, “We can do something with this.” They realised there was not much money in the area, so they kept the low-priced stuff, but they also started to work with small, independent producers. They get their sausages from the local butcher and they get the local florist to deliver. And they’ve created this brilliant supermarket. There’s a space where people can sit and eat too, instead of a dodgy cafe, they get the greatest street food vendors to come.

Now areas like Walthamstow will pick up and you’ll suddenly notice that a chain shop has come in because Eat 17 has created the footfall. They’ve created the place to go.

 

….These are the new anchors of the high street. Instead of “Oh, we have to get a Marks & Spencer or a Debenhams in here”, the new anchors won’t even be all retail, they could be a yoga studio, a crèche, community spaces with a socialising function. So yes, we’re going to have less retail, but we’re going to have better retail and better places to connect.

 

Eat17, was the core of my post back in July 2018. But I have seen it happen more recently and in other areas. In my own local shopping parade , there is a new deli, owned by a Dutch guy, who in one year has done exactly what Portas is talking about. I am not sure they are in this order but he certainly focuses on the following tenets….

What is the triple bottom line and why is it important?

The triple bottom line is people, planet, profit, in that order. Put your people first, because the planet will continue without us, but if we want to be on it, we need to change. We need to understand how we’re eating, how we’re travelling and how we’re buying. Put people first and it will be us that can make that change happen. And this means both people in your business and people outside your business. Not consumers or staff: People.

Result is success and other local retailers taking note.

Mary Portas, goes on to say that the likes of House of Fraser failed and Marks & Spencer’s are struggling as they contact to operate on the premise that the stores were places for moving stock. That, clearly, is no longer the case. It is much more difficult for the High Street multiple to engage with the consumer in the same way that the independent can. Which is why , for the first time for a long,long time that the Independent has an opportunity to be one step ahead.

Having just spent a week at a trade show talking to retailers, it is very evident that the creative and forwarding looking retailer is beginning to understand this . Only a couple of weeks ago the High Street of the year(as awarded by the greatbritishhighstreet.co.uk, a Government initiative) was a small town in the Valleys in South Wales, Treorchy. An area not normally associated with retail innovation. It was achieved by a large number of independent Retailers working and engaging with their local consumers.

As to my own industry, ie party, the signs are clearly there. Without change there is nowhere for the retailer to go….At the same time the supply chain needs to understand where they want to be and how they want to get there.

‘DiscoCounting’ ….or Disco Duncing ?

Lousy title . Corny, clichéd, and crap. But surely it’s got to be better than An analysis of the effectiveness of discount pricing strategies within the U.K. retail sector. If it isn’t you will have stopped reading this post by now, if you have managed to get this far. Yet, feedback suggests otherwise. At least 50% of my readership say otherwise. I know that Julia (the 50%) reads right through to the end. Put that in your pipe and smoke it (old English phrase for..my husband can’t do wrong).

There is nothing new in retail discounting. The first Woolworths was a Five Cent store. Marks and Spencer’s were originally Penny stores. When Jack Cohen (Tesco) started selling groceries, it was surplus stock. Throughout the decades many retail discounters have come and gone . In the U.K. the original Kwik Save supermarkets, expanded exponentially. During the seventies and eighties, various discount operators flourished then vanished , such as The House of Holland, Bewise, and many others. Today, there are those that thrive. The big daddy of them all is, of course , Walmart in the USA . Now still the worlds largest retailer. Throughout Europe, there are many successful discount retailers , Action and Hema in the Netherlands, Aldi , Schwarz and Penny Markt in Germany, and Carrefour in France, to name but a few. Within the U.K. there are some of our most profitable retailers eg B&M Stores, Home and Bargain. These all prove , to a degree, that it is and can be very effective form of retailing. Primark for example have just released another set of very impressive Christmas figures.But that’s not my argument. This are professional discounters who have built their business model on discounted prices .

Currently, every other retailer (well, not quite every) believes that the panacea to all retail ills is discounting. It ain’t and never will . Please somebody tell if I’m wrong but there are fundamental issues with discounting that undermines most retail models. If we assume that the discount being offered is real and true discount, ie not some bit of old tat or clearance you have bought in just to offer at an artificial discount. There are three immediate affects …

Loss of profit margin in percentage terms.

Loss of cash margin in real terms.

Simple example of selling something at £4 instead of £5=25% lost profit margin, and £1 less taken through the till. There is the hope that you may sell two items instead of one, but unless the customer needs or wants two , it maybe just forlorn hope. But if they do buy two it puts of a possible repeat purchase, which may have been at the real price.

Most importantly, is the loss of consumer confidence. By that I mean the consumer no longer believes in the discounted price, worse still , the real price . I, firmly, believe that is where we are today. The year is littered with sales. Black Friday, winter sale, summer sale, Boxing Day sale, blue cross sale (Debenhams- done them a lot of good), easter sale, Christmas sale, end of season sale, bumper sale, clearance sale, the list is endless . Even if the discounts are real, there are so many that the punter knows to hang on as there will be a sale around the corner.

Here’s another. Consumer inflation over recent years has been notoriously low. Retailers costs are the complete opposite . To pursue pricing policies which reduce your margins unless you have been able to combat those costs, is sheer lunacy.

Discounting is effective in clearing unwanted stock. However, today the danger lies in the fact that there is often good reason for it being ‘unwanted’. Bad buying, change in fashion or simply there is better available elsewhere, and maybe even at a better price. Within my own market, product that is past its want by date has in practice no value . When Frozen 2 was released, Frozen 1 merchandise could be barely given away . The reality is that old stock is bad stock.

Retail History repeatedly illustrates that discounting is only ever a short term tactic. Today it is rarely even defensive. The change in retailing has been rapid and dramatic (I do not refer to the effect of online operations). The change in consumer behaviour is equally dramatic (again disregarding onliners ). Any non discount retailer that uses discounts as a means to continuous survival, will not survive.

Disco dancing may have made Travolta into superstar, but it’s alliteration for retailers will take them to the back of the class, with the rest of the dunces.

You should be dancing , yeah, you should be dancing ,yeah

But not discocounting.

You think it’s all over….But what about “Planed Board with slightly rounded long sides” ?

Well it is now. Or so we are told. Well another General Election is. And probably the EU withdrawal agreement. Oh and another decade, plus Christmas for another twelve months. So it’s a bit more than just ‘it’s‘. Get it, it’s all over ….

But it isn’t . It’s only just started . The devil is in the detail, and there is a devilish amount of detail. I don’t just want to rant on about Brexit negotiations, all negotiations are detailed and complex . Flogging party stuff, like what we do , should be pretty straightforward. Like..

Morning ‘Guv’ ‘ere’s my bit of red, white, and blue bunting (please note this subtle tale of patriotism) is ten metres long and costs ‘nuppence’ . ‘Ow much would you like ?

‘Guv’ replies ‘sod off’ or ‘ send me bucket loads ‘.

But it isn’t , Straightforward that is. In some cases it has taken five years to get to the ‘bucket loads’ bit.

So when it comes to something like trade negotiations. There is just a little more detail. The following is an extract from a paper relating to some negotiating over various grey areas within tariff classifications.

Tariff classification of Planed board with slightly rounded long sides (TAXUD/3177523/2019)

Classification as “wood sawn or chipped lengthwise, sliced or peeled, whether or not planed” under heading 4407? Or classification as “wood … continuously shaped (tongued, grooved, rebated, chamfered, v jointed, beaded, moulded, rounded or the like) along any of its edges, ends or faces, whether or not planed” under heading 4409?

 

This particular extract is one paragraph out of a page and a half on this one product, from a document over one hundred and fifty pages covering a load of incidentals about stuff of which is little known by man nor beast. The point being, this is just a tiny window into the enormous complexity that is commonly referred to as international trade talks.

I don’t want to rant on about the U.K. Government’s up and coming trade talks with the EU plus the ninety odd countries that it needs just to replace existing agreements. There is no point as it now just has to be done . I just feel when I read this ‘simple’ extract, it was a perfect illustration of the complexities of any negotiations. With tariff codes, for those that don’t know there is a product title number then below this there are series of sub sets . Simples !

The HS (Harmonised System) comprises approximately 5,300 article/product descriptions that appear as headings and subheadings, arranged in 99 chapters, grouped in 21 sections

Now that’s only products, it does not include services, nor intellectual property, data and load of constituent parts to various market places. What is more it only identifies a description of a product , and has nothing to do with any product standard. But I feel a rant coming , so I shall move on.

Many commercial negotiations seem on the surface, to be unnecessarily complex. Yet, particularly in larger organisations, there are many ‘Ts’ to be crossed and ‘Is’ dotted. For example, and this is a gross oversimplification and generalisation, you may have a product accepted at the lowest level within an organisation. This, then,may go to committee or at very least senior manager to approve. The next step is for it to be accepted by the merchandising department. This is to make sure it fits in store, both physically and philosophically. Then, after that, come logistics. They ensure that it can be distributed effectively throughout the estate. If this is all ok, Quality control will ensure it meets all relevant legal and ethical standards. Within this process there will some involvement from finance, to ensure that there are the resources to take this product. And that is by no means the end of the story. The organisation will at some point have to decide if it worth going through all this for just one product. The answer to that is generally ‘No’. Consequently, if you are fortunate enough to get a range selected, there will be appropriate form filling for every individual item, to satisfy every department in that chain .

Easy peezey, it is not. Oven ready it is not. Straightforward it is not. So when politicians, journalists, media types, so called experts, plus a big chunk of our population, rant on about any negotiation should be very simple and straightforward, need think again or at the very least consider the issues concerning planed board, with slightly rounded long sides….

Christmas…is it good for your ‘elf?

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Christmas is an artificial Construct

I aways wanted to write that since I was a wee child and bumped from a key role in my school’s nativity play. Well probably not true, but I was given lead role, a few years later, as Basildon Bond, 0013. Result… and probably the reason I have such a jaundiced view of Christmas.

Churches and Children listen up, I am not saying Christmas doesn’t exist or it is bad for you, this is about, not being good for your ‘elf or your ‘welf’.

Since Victorian times, Christmas has become the ultimate consumer event of the retailers’ year. In recent times, this has extended beyond societies of mainly Christian based populations to virtually any society, of no matter what faith, as long as that society has the wherewithal to spend some money in order to experience and enjoy the ‘non’ religious aspects of let’s spend a load of money for no particular reason time of year . For crying out loud , the whole traditional Father Christmas image is  an artifical construct (got it in again) by  the marketeers of Coca Cola in the 1930’s.

For many years the Christmas season, often defined as the last three months of the year, has been the period where most within the retail sector, manufacturers, importers, distributors and of course the retailer themselves, have made their money . The rest of the years trading covered their cost base , and loosely speaking, the last quarter was the time when real profits were to be had. Within the last twenty years that has started to change . Retailing has become so aggressive, margins so pressurised that without good Christmas trading , the shear existence of those within the chain is threatened.

This is not healthy. All retailing is subject to event based peaks and troughs, whether it Christmas, Valentines Day, Easter, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, Halloween, summer sales, Boxing Day Sales, and now Black Friday. Apart from perhaps the catering and travel industry I can not think of any other market sector that has created such a bumpy annual trading period. In a weird sort of way all those events have, historically, been latched(or in some cases such as Valentines and Mother’s Day created) onto by the retailing fraternity in order to boost their business. Yet, the consequence is now the mad scramble to sell stock at any price. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but relying on the success of such seasonality can only add to a retailer’s misery.

An example of using a season to smoothen annual trading is unusual but not unknown. A number of years ago Garden Centres, understanding that during winter they had a load of unused space and came up with the idea that they would be the perfect outlet for Christmas decorations as they had the space to display the products at their best . The consequence of this action is that they now dominate the Christmas decoration market. Conversely, the toy industry, in about the late eighties, so concerned about the size of the end of year peak at Christmas attempted a campaign to get parents to give a gift of a toy at Easter. Needless to say it was not a success. Paradoxically ,the party industry which, as Christmas is supposed to be party time, does not perform especially well at Christmas, but has become very reliant on Halloween. If it’s a poor year for Halloween, it is an especially poor year for Party retailers. Turn the clock back a few years, Christmas was the time Party Retailers revelled in it literally . Wind forward and Party Retailers become fearful of a bad Halloween and do little business at Christmas(New year is ok).

There is no magic wand to smoothing out big spikes in Retail. Yet, I have one client who started about five years ago and refused to buy product related to any major event . His business model was to make the operation profitable on everyday business. Within a couple of years he had achieved that . Any additional business created by these spikes was icing on the cake and as a consequence the core business is a lot ‘elfier’ for it (apart from all the icing -which can be very bad for your teeth).

I am not a grinch (perhaps a bit of one) but the Christmas for retailers and consumer alike, juts seems to be a load of stress. Stress in buying stuff they don’t whether is right for  those they are buying for and more often don’t really have the spare cash to afford. Then a load more cash is spent on far too much food, much of which does not get eaten. And that, that does get consumed , is because everyone overeats. No it ain’t ‘elfy, it makes you less ‘welfy’….And the Elf in the image ? By the look on his face , I think he is skiving, cos he is fed up with fat block with a beard in a red suit bossing him around. Oh and the Elves…No, they are real. They are just a transmogrication of the poor buggers stressing around in their white vans trying get that last present delivered on Christmas Eve, you were too stressed and forgot to order, for your nearest and dearest….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Perceive …or Not to Perceive ?

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When Willy the Bard first wrote those (not exactly) words, he probably did not think they would be bastardised in such a frivolous manner . Well, get with the project Mr Willy , if you are listening, time moves on…

Neither would he have tolerated plagiarism, well once again move on , it’s all the rage. so that what I am going to do . I will ‘plagiarise'(felt a Gloria Gaynor song coming on, but soon stopped as I can only ever remember first lines), myself or an article written by myself for a trade publication,a couple of years ago. So much of what we see, hear or do is subject to perception.

‘….what we believe is based upon our perceptions….what we perceive depends upon what we look for….what we believe determines what we take to be true…what we take to be true be our reality…. ‘

Gary Zukav (American spiritual teacher, former Vietnam special ops vet and advisor to the American security services)

I return to it , not Gary, ‘cos I don’t know him, but perception itself as it invades every aspect of our lives and never more so.

You get up, go to the bathroom, and, invariably, stare into a mirror. What do you see? In my case , it is a ‘gormless dork’. Should Julia be passing by she might see an extraordinary specimen, she might not, but at that moment in time it is down to how she perceives me. Throughout the day everything you do will be affected by perception. So how is that entire sections, commercial, personal, religious, play, health and everything else from cradle to grave, of society seem to ignore that. A very simple example is you go into a rubbish shop ( not one selling rubbish, and not one I ‘perceive’ as being rubbish, but a bloody awful shop, plenty around just look) and think what is there about this place that the owner thinks makes it an attractive environment for a consumer to come in and buy stuff. Only this weekend we were both in Brick Lane , East London. In this street there is a very famous Beigel shop. There are actually two, only two doors away from each other . One was empty, the other had punters , literally, queing into the street. I am not suggesting one is especially bad , indeed reviews say there is little difference, and that they are owned by the same family members. The only apparent differences are the colour of the signage,  one is one hundred years older and one is open 24/7 but at 2 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon that if pretty irrelevent. My suspicion at this stage was thatthe queue created a perception that this was the best shop ??

We are plagued by the phrase ‘fake news’ but essentially most of it is about how each of us perceives a piece of information. Of course organisations of all shapes and sizes know this and manipulate that information to convince us about the message they wish to convey. Whether it be the mighty Apple, Coke Cola, BMW, Macdonalds, through every democratic political party ( even dictators use perception manipulation, its just they are less bothered about it), the worlds major faiths through to your next door neighbour (who you think are a really nice family ‘cos that’s what they want you to think, but behind the scenes they are criminal masterminds).

How was it for you….?

A pretty simple question, with potentially a pretty simple answer . Yet it is one those questions that carries a whole load of baggage and pitfalls. Does the questioner want a truthful answer …?

Hi Alf, its been a great summers day , hasn’t it ? Blue sky all day, birds singing…

Nah Liz, I got burnt in the sun, my fault, but then I tripped over some idiots bike in the park and broke my wrist on the footpath….so it ain’t been that great…just remembered I got fired ….

At this time of year, within our industry,immediately post Halloween , the question on every one’s lips is how was it for you (or rather for everyone else)?

Well the answer is not so straight forward ‘cos it was different for most. There are local issues that have affected some in completely different ways. For example one customer had a very good Halloween because a competitor had closed but another not so good as major road works hampered their customer flow , so it was ok but not great. But for some ‘it were great’.

Marks & Spencer’s have recorded their eighth year of falling clothing sales and consequent decline in profitability. Yet over a similar period, selling presumably similar product (clothing) Seasalt has recorded ten years of annual growth exceeding 20%.

Their gross profit increased last year from 55-57% and their net profit was five times higher than last year at £2.5 million. Their total turnover was £66 million and they have been going since 1981. So they may not as large or as long established as Marks , but they are not the the new kids on the block either. They have and are experiencing the same high street retail as everyone else, but they would have a very different answer to the the same question. Oh, and just one other thing , they dont only sell clothing but their focus is women’s clothing , Mark’s biggest problem. Come to think of it , so do Primark, so do Next and they are doing quite well, if asked how’s it for you….

It’s a question , I am regularly asked but think about, before opening my big ‘gob’. I think about who is asking and what do they genuinely want to hear. If they are having a really tough time, especially through reasons beyond their control I don’t really think they want to hear how wonderful everyone is doing (rarely quite that straightforward). On the other hand, if I figure that they are having a tough time and would want to know if others are having a better time then they may get some inspiration, motivation or just ideas that will help change the course of their business, I tell ’em.

So my theory on the post heading is….If you ask the question, consider whether you will get a truthful answer, and whether you want a truthful answer. If you are asked the question, ‘sod the questioner’, give the answer you want to give .

Happy?….who says so?

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A mind boggling, bonkers piece of recent research proposes that ‘Brits’ were happier in the 1880’s. How does it know? Well because they read loads of books, no,not the happy fun loving Brits of the 1880’s, but the researchers . And not really them but computers,or rather we must assume that as the claim was made that the research was conducted by going through 8 million books and 65 million articles, from that period analysing the words used that may construe a state of ‘happiness’ (14,000 to be precise). I know computers are super fast and they can work how many calories martians need to survive, without knowing what they look like. But I am not convinced they can interpet that amount of data without quantifying the quality and origins of the written pieces.

You have to question the methodology.  Infant mortality was around 15%, extreme poverty was still pretty rife, women did not have the vote, yes from the 1880’s improvements were starting to filter through to everyday life but it was hardly a bunch of roses for the average family. Whilst literacy was around the 70% mark,its hard to imagine the Smith family sitting down on a Sunday afternoon (oh yes no telly then, don’t you know …no not even X Box’s) pouring over a pile of books or the Sunday papers.

More to the point who funds this type of research and why ? More recently I read some research coming out of the Economic Research Unit (Unit not the famous Group as in ERG. I believe that Economic and Research has little to do with the ERG), where one of the economists suggested that if UK retailers embraced Halloween in the same way as the US then UK Retail would be a lot more buoyant. If I remember correctly they said something like ….if more retailers stocked Halloween, novelties, cards  ( what Halloween cards? flipping ‘eck-my words), decorations and dress up stuff…. What are these people smoking when they write this stuff.

Only this week more amazing research has come out showing that an interview is decided within the first seven words the interviewee has spoken. The study was carried out with the interviewers not knowing the background or seeing the cv of the person they were interviewing . So the candidate who drops their ‘h’s ‘, talks with a west indian patois, interlaced with a heavy geordie accent,  with a  background of having spent ten years in medical research, developed a cure for brain cancer, climbed everest, given numerous presentations to the UN and has written 23 best selling novels under a pen name(so they dont recognise his name) in his spare time , has little chance of getting the job ‘cos they don’t know anything about them and can’t understand a word they are saying.

I know the media only publishes this stuff as fillers,but ultimately they get funded by someone, and someone else (plus the first someone) will make use of the results. Its a bit like the Coffee is good from you one week , bad for you another, no alcohol is better for you  then the following week and half bottle of whsky a day will stop you going bald. you pick the one that suits you best and take the consequences.

Worse still it feeds into the fake news narrative. Not that this type of research is fake news per se. But taken in isolation and out of context , it most certainly is. Why is society littered with ‘fad diets’ ? Because a bit of research has just shown that by eating the grass in the park twice a week will help you loose ten kilos, make you faster, fitter, more intelligent and more attractive to the local farmers cattle. No, of course , it hasn’t really, just trying to illustrate the idiocy of some the apparent data that the media is so keen to dispense.

So it’s nearly one hundred and forty years since we, in the U.K., were happy. Not so, says research published in The Times, only last week. Apparently, despite all the political and social discord, we are , mostly, all pretty happy now ?? See chart below if you doubt me(perish the thought now!) and this was additional research published in , no less than, the Financial Times , in May .

 

Shopping Centres ..or Retail Temples ?

If you are face to face, and you don’t know the face that’s facing you, then fess up .

Well I didn’t know The Face, or at least I had heard of it but never read it. It was a magazine first published in 1980 but closed down in 2004. Now subject to a rebirth, I came across an article which seems rather out of character but nevertheless intriguing.

The magazine originally was known for its articles on fashion, style, arts and culture. This article perhaps covers all of the above and a bit more. So how come it has something to say about retail. Don’t really know ‘cos I don’t read or rather I don’t read it but I did read this article of which I have nicked some paragraphs as they have some relevance. Apologies for taking chunks out and just repeating them, but there’s not much point in paraphrasing if the real thing better.

To drift through the middle of Leeds is to drift through several versions of “town” all happening at once. The city centre is almost entirely atomised, separated into distinct districts, each with its own name, history and target audience.

Trinity, which opened in 2013, is the largest and most popular of these shopping precincts, and the aimlessness we call “shopping” is everywhere: parents and children abandon Jack & Jones for lunch at Giraffe; vacant sixth-formers sift through the slim pickings of another Urban Outfitters sale. These are scenes of the unremarkable; the sort that fold away entire weekends like receipt paper.

In other ways though, Trinity is a future vision of “going into town”. The centre’s smooth walkways are wrapped around an atrium, at the heart of which stands a 15-foot metallic sculpture of a packhorse, drenched in dazzling silver light. This is still “town”, but more pristine than in the past.

So far so good . Or rather, in terms of retail not so good. But is a reasonable representation of our current stock of shopping centres. ‘Architectural’ attempts of regenerating retail but not very successfully.

Five minutes’ walk away from Trinity is Leeds’ newest shopping precinct. Built in 2016, Victoria Leeds looks more like an art gallery than a mall and has machines permanently buffing the floors. While not designed by Chapman Taylor(designer of Trinity)it has similar qualities: it’s smooth, open and glassy. As well as Calvin Klein, COS and Charbonnel et Walker, it contains the largest stained glass window in the country, created by the artist Brian Clarke, and there’s a Damien Hirst angel, wings spread, cordoned off by a low-hanging rope. A cluster of passers-by take photos while two smartly-dressed security staff watch on, walkie-talkies crackling.

What’s most striking, though, is the almost total quiet and lack of crowds. In the old shopping centres this minimal footfall might have been a cause for concern – a hallmark of irreversible decline. But in the retail world of the future this doesn’t matter. Since internet shopping precipitated the “death of the high street”, shops have taken on new meanings. Rather than focusing on selling things, they’ve become tools for building brand awareness. Mary Portas, the so-called Queen of Shops, coined an unintentionally chilling name for this new model of shop: the “brand temple”. It’s a phrase that speaks to the repositioning of retail as an experience, rather than an exchange.

This is, I think, the most interesting or perhaps relevant. Shops not actually selling anything. Which is a little disingenuous, as they are there to sell, but you don’t physically take anything away . This has vague echoes of a concept I described in a post last August, concerning a development in Dubai whereby the experience, as opposed to the shopping was paramount. They are only feint echoes as the Dubai concept is a lot more ‘Dubaish’.

The last excerpt from the article tells of a more significant aspect to this type of development. There are other similar ventures that are detailed in the article which just reinforces the trend. The last paragraph of this excerpt , is the most telling if these ‘new temples’ are successful.

Whether shopping centres can be understood as public spaces is questionable. They are ultimately businesses, so to consider them as sentimentally as we do parks or plazas is perhaps naïve. But they are also significant. For better or for worse, our towns and cities are built around shops and shopping culture. If we accept a future where cheaper shopping takes place entirely in the digital sphere, and where familiar brands like M&S and Debenhams are replaced by big-brand temples, then we accept a world in which the everyday shopper is tacitly edged out of civic life.

We’ll always be drawn into town. Even if the day comes when trainers are drone-flown directly onto our feet, there will always be time to kill. There will always be a centrifugal force pulling us back to the splash of fountains, the smell of candied nuts, the cackle of doomsday preachers through amplifiers somewhere in the middle-distance. What is waiting for us – how welcome we feel – when we get there will play no small part in defining the changing surface of our lives. Call it experiential retail or enforced window-shopping; the future, it seems, may not be for everyone.

Perhaps it’s overthinking, but there are potential unseen consequences if this was to repeat itself throughout the U.K., and elsewhere. These are social consequences, that could be the result of making the retail focus of major towns that of high end brands. It has the potential to divide town centre shoppers to the ‘have’ and the ‘have nots’ . A divisive feature much like Temples and centres of faith .

Without getting into a deep theological diatribe, it has long been an accusation of most faiths within the U.K. that the pursuit of happiness is shifting from spiritual worship to that of consumerism. Whilst there maybe some truth in that, it is surely up to those religions to make their temples a more attractive proposition than those of the retailer.

United Kingdom …a Nation of Shopkeepers…discuss..

Napoleon, that great French retail analyst, famously said that England ‘was a nation of shopkeepers ‘. Fake news he didn’t. The first time it was recorded was

To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.

— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations1776

It was then used by a French revolutionary, M. Barère. Meant in a complimentary manner alluding to England’s great wealth and prosperity.

Well I am sure we used to be jolly good opening little houses, sticking stuff in them, entrapping the passerby and swapping their hard earned dosh for stuff they didn’t know they needed. I am also pretty sure, the French, Germans, Americans, Chinese, Australians and everybody else are also quite good at shopkeeping. But this is all ancient history. I think it is a very apt time to look our recent retailing history and look at some the less obvious factors that have had an impact upon retailers especially independents.

In the mid 1970’s , the corner shop/newsagent started to feel the chill of an extended winter. There had been a gradual expansion since the early fifties. By now the growth had become a decline. The independent shop keeper wanted out. Yet at the same time, there was a large influx of East African Asians, who were being flushed out from various East African nations. Many of these families came from successful trading backgrounds and were looking for commercial possibilities. The Corner Shop was the perfect opportunity for many, as it also involved living accommodation. By the early 2000’s 75% were owned by Asian families.The rest is history . Moreover some have since become the very wealthiest families in the U.K.

But the story did not stop there. Newsagents saw gradual declines owing to various factors such as Supermarkets starting to sell newspapers, decline in smoking , general increase in competition from the supermarkets, less newspapers sold, but there a couple of positive blips. In the early nineties, indeed nearly the same year, there were two significant developments, the National lottery and phone cards. In the early stages both were only available in the independent newsagent or convenience store. The insidious negative was that whilst they were high revenue (low margin) and they brought a lot of punters into the shops it had a massive impact on the said punters spending power. The money spent on phone cards alone was over £75 million (at 1990 prices) and the first lottery week in 1994 took £49 million. This money had to come from somewhere. For the most part a lot of this spend replaced other non essential independent spending eg confectionery, magazines, pocket money toys, stationery etc.

Fast forward and the decline of the independent newsagent has been rapid for a whole gamut of other reasons past and present. Whilst difficult to get exact numbers it is estimated that the number has at very least halved in the last thirty-five years.

So what? You may ask.….’All High Street retailing is really tough’ . The point I am trying to make, yes it is, but retailing is a very tough business and always has been. What changes are the circumstances and the reasons. It is not even cyclical or at least not economically cyclical. Trends, tastes, fashion, technology, competition and a whole bunch of reasons make retailing eternally difficult to master. Newsagents are just an example how over a period of many changes, the outlook has consistently changed for streams iof unrelated issues that are not necessarily common to other types of retailers.

Here are a couple things Napoleon did say (apparently) which have a current ring of truth….

When small men attempt great enterprises, they always end by reducing them to the level of their mediocrity.

Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly …

Bad is not Good. Not because it is pretty obvious, but I have posted a lot recently about what is bad in retailing. A little balance is good , ‘cos sometimes you need to say what is ‘good’ just to re-emphasise the bad. I haven’t yet written anything about Ugly.

Whilst it’s not always helpful to mention names when talking about ‘bad retailers’ , I think it’s really important to use names when they are ‘good’.

The Good

Whistlefish -Cornwall

This is an independent chain (11 branches I think) of card and print ‘galleries’ in Devon & Cornwall. Julia and I happened to visit one of their Galleries in Dartmouth. Our opinion, is sort of, purely as consumers. They are called galleries but essentially they are shops. The stores are very clean, very white in a ‘Cornwall Coastal’ type style. All the products, mainly cards, certainly in space given, are designed and created by the Company. It is very nearly a one price concept, in that nearly all the cards were £10 for 8, which was terrific value for U.K. design and made product (apparently all done in house).

Service was excellent. And they took no cash. For some, this maybe a drawback, but from a business model it meant no cash handled, no cash on the premises and no cash to pay in the bank. As the shop manager said , ‘there was not a bank in the town to pay cash into’.

Conclusion…it is attractive, inviting, I think it’s fair to say ‘uniquely’. Certainly very different. It’s one of those shops you are sucked into and probably end spending money on stuff you never thought you needed.

Sharp looking web site

http://www.whistlefish.co.uk

Studio Dix Neuf- Devon

Dartmouth again. Same day , but totally different ‘kettle of fish’, so to speak, using a marine like analogy. Small gallery run by husband and wife . Products sold are prints by Wife and lamps by Husband. Sounds pretty straight forward and a tad dreary, but not so. Lamp maker extraordinaire is French and very French to boot, in a good way. What he makes is amazing and quite literally unique. He refuses to make two of anything. His work does not come cheap, nor should it. Every piece of work comes with a complete set of technical drawings . Moreover, most of this happens within the shop. Even if you are not in the market for a lamp, it’s worth a visit. If you want to see creativity in its naissance thru to completion, I think this might be the only shop to find it . Plus a bit of Gallic charm.

http://www.studiodixneuf.com

Broadway Deli and Grocery

This is a bit closer to home, or rather it’s a ten minute walk from home. I have posted about this before. This is the case of a Dutchman bringing back to life a struggling local organic grocery store. The Dutchman not only knows his stuff, he engages with both suppliers and customers, and delights in distributing his knowledge to his customer base. In a very short period of time he has established his place within the local community and provides a range of product that is different , often local (from within the South East, but some much closer such as using local bakeries) and responds to customers requests .

The Bad

I lied. I said I wouldn’t mention bad retail. Well I don’t see why not. It’s quite simple, there’s a lot. But from very recent experience let’s take two , WH Smith & Boots. Have you been into one of either and wondered why they exist? I can only sum up the former as a lot of nothing, and a very tired and uninspiring nothing to boot(nothing to do with the latter). The latter often displays much but offers little, especially in some of the larger stores, where there is a bucket load of space but in reality not a lot of product. Or there are a lot of ranges but not much within each range . Some of the smaller stores are very grubby. But with most of the estate big or small, service is poor , particularly at the till. Why do some retailers do this ? Provide the least service at the place where the customer is giving them their dosh and just about to leave the store. Is there some retail moral there about ‘lasting memories ‘?

I have picked on these two but in fairness, the High Street is littered them. But with these two I am not sure what service they do provide. Boots, obviously, have the pharmacies, but independent pharmacies are often in evidence and generally look and feel more professional. With Smith’s even the airport shops, which are the really profitable part of the chain, don’t look and feel any different. In some cases they are worse, as they are in such a ‘high octane environment‘ and feel more ‘calor gas

and The Ugly

More lies. I said I wasn’t writing about Ugly .

Mountain warehouse is not a bad retailer. We have, on occasion, bought from the store. Product range is good, value is reasonable and on the whole the staff are knowledgeable and helpful. The image below is why it is ugly. And it’s not because of the hanging white arm. Though it don’t look great.

Very recently Julia purchased a pair of fleece lined trousers at £15.99 down from £59.99 in a ‘Sale’ . I wanted a pair (why? Not telling!). So I asked the manager if they had my size. He said ‘no’ but if I try this other branch (not saying where because Staff might get a grilling if this was ever read. Yes it’s possible as I am hash tagging it). So we drove the relevant fifteen miles and sure enough they did. I took them to the counter and the till showed £59.99. Naturally, I queried it. I emphasised that I understood the sign said ‘upto’ 70% off. Thus knowing it maybe anything up to that figure. But the response was ‘I am sorry, but there is nothing off these trousers. But I do understand the confusion as you are not the first to question this. However, the company does have this policy of putting the Sale signs all over the store…’

I needed the trousers (not telling) and said I would let head office know of my discontent (I have not). I think this is ugly practice(nb: my trousers came off the rack just under that horizontal red Sale upto 70% card)

Come on Mr Neale(CEO) this not a good look.

I’m not name dropping. I don’t know the guy but this is too good a retailer to let this one go.

In the immortal words of the man with name

Punk…make my day get yourself sorted if you want our money.

Yes I know he did not say that in this film . Nor did he actually use those words. But I would bet a fistful of dollars that he would have if there had been retailers like this in the Wild West. Actually , he probably wouldn’t have, he would have just shot them.