Kate Hardcastle
Kate Hardcastle

High street problems are not a soap opera

Retail expert Kate Hardcastle gives her response to the row between Mary Portas and the Margate Town Team.

The problems facing the high street aren’t a soap opera, nor should they be treated as one. The news that retailers in Margate, the first confirmed Portas Pilot, have been left feeling they are juggling the needs of a TV show as well as their own businesses makes me wonder how far those in power are taking the plight of our independent retail sector seriously.

When I established my own business in 2008, I spent many hours trying to make it a success. It would have been cheaper, and at times easier, to buy “out of town” and through supermarkets or online: Instead I continued my shopping locally. I have always tried to use the skill and support to help independent retailers – and more recently we have trialled Retail Support Clinics - “drop in” events for concerned and worried retailers to come and gain support and advice, gain inspiration or just meet with each other and share ideas or frustrations.

In that time I have spent hours upon hours with intelligent and varied business owners, passionate about their business but mainly tinged with fear.

Some have the precious responsibility of carrying forward the heritage of a family business, some have built hopes and dreams and even a re-mortgage or two into their store, salon or convenience shop.

At each event we have been clear and honest about the facts – but we have spent a lot of time trying to be positive and showed a way forward for many of our attendees. There is an absolute common theme amongst everyone; they are fed up with the negative headlines. We have tried to speak to any members of the press covering our events and tried to rally them to be supportive, but against the wave of negative headlines, it’s a losing battle.

It’s really easy for everyone to point fingers, we can all judge why we think the towns and city centres may get it wrong but we don’t know the half of it. The combination of challenges with the recession, our busy lifestyles and time pressure making leisurely shopping a thing of the past, rates, and red tape are a daily heartache. Then add in the pressure of neighbouring stores closing down and dropping footfall; it’s a David and Goliath style battle.

We have some great examples and case studies to share where independent businesses have got it to work – and how when working together with neighbouring businesses can make the process seem less isolated – but we are completely realistic, it’s a tough road ahead.

That’s why when I read the stories of the retailers and businesses in Margate and their feeling that Mary Portas was putting the needs of a TV show ahead of their own my heart sank. We need positive and supportive campaigns. It needs to be able to get a message to the media that there is a positive reason to buy. Earlier this year we launched our Customer at the Heart Awards exactly on that basis. Research shows that one of the things the independents can get right - and be far superior in many cases to the nationals - is the superb attentive insight, knowledge and attention to detail. We celebrate publicly nominated businesses who excel in a mystery shop. The award is a badge of recognition for the retailers to get publicity and recognition, giving customers another reason to shop.

To truly make a difference to our high streets and town centres we need to motivate and inject enthusiasm. Negativity will only make the challenges more entrenched, the battles harder to win.

Those wanting to save the high street need to face up to the reality of the situation, not provide fodder for reality TV.

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