Nicky Tatley offers some advice to retailers looking to survive on the shrinking high street.
BusinessesForSale

How to survive on the high street

It’s five years since Mary Portas delivered her government commissioned High StreetReview and whilst there have been positive responses from select town centres across the UK, independent retailers are still facing some pretty big challenges.

Back in 2011, Portas’ now notorious claim that our high streets will ‘disappear forever’ without urgent action is still ringing in the ears of the small business community.

Now fully established as the nation’s ‘Queen of shops’ her pronouncement that the high street had suffered ‘years of erosion, neglect and mismanagement’ is reflected in the recent demise of BHS: a fall from grace that serves as a warning to all high street businesses, big or small.

The popularity of online shopping and the ever-increasing range of products at our supermarkets are showing no signs abating – and why would they? Today’s customers want choice, convenience and quality and they want it yesterday.

The customer has always been ‘king’ but never more so than now and high street shops are going to have to dance like a court jester to avoid the chop!

Here’s how to survive on the high street:

Create a positive experience

2012, a year after Portas’ report, the UK’s shop closure rate was at it’s highest in the past 5 years at 20 a day. Recent research from PWC, however, reveals that the number has slowed to its lowest level at 14 a day.

The research also shows that the retail industry is experiencing its lowest levels of churn

(entries and exits) since 2010.

It seems that retailers are gradually adapting to changing consumer behaviour.

Interestingly, clothing shops, convenience stores and mobile phone shops have fared the worst and are being replaced by coffee shops and take-away food outlets.

Mike Jervis, partner and retail specialist at PWC said: “The openings are concentrated on experience type outlets, especially food and beverage.”

‘Experience’ is the key word here, as shoppers (who can order almost anything they want whilst lying horizontal on the sofa) still want human interaction and the ‘destination’ appeal that a shop can offer.

It’s just that now shops are going to have to offer a lot more to get consumers out of the house.

Offer good value and good values

It’s no coincidence that farmers’ markets have grown in popularity in tandem with the the rise of online shopping. Shoppers are drawn to the bustle, authenticity of product and a feeling that they are being more ethical in their choices.

Small, high street businesses should pay heed to this trend and aim to become a ‘destination’ that is value and experience driven.

Larger high street success stories like Uniqlo – who offer cutting edge, high quality fashion at affordable prices in uber-modern shops boasting interactive mirrors and roof-top event spaces – can serve as inspiration.

The outdoor clothing brand, Patagonia, is also exemplary. It offers its customers a repair service for clothes bought at the store – promoting its ethos of quality and longevity as an alternative to the ‘disposable’ fashion that other high street chains offer. Their stores repair more than 40,000 garments a year.

High street shops need to give shoppers a reason to visit, so along with providing a quality product, thought must be put into creating an appealing aesthetic and and promoting a feel-good ‘lifestyle’ ethic.

Understand the power of brand

As our consumer society becomes ever more fragmented, the importance of a stand-out brand is absolutely vital.

A brand is a flag signaling your offering to the world, so in order to draw customers away from the competition – online or otherwise – it’s imperative to have a clever and compelling image.

A brand needs to extend from the shop signage, logos, packaging and décor to the product lines, online presence and business ethos – and the message must be clear and consistent.

It’s becoming more apparent that narrowing the focus of a brand or specialising to nicheproducts is a route to survival on the high street. Modern consumers are more inclined to spread their loyalties around these days; buying their meat in an organic butchery, their fish from a specialist fishmonger, their coffee from a hipster roastery and their basics from Lidl.

As long as a high street shop knows who they are targeting, and offer an appropriately selected range of products, their brand equity will grow as well as their customer base.

Collaborate

One way high street shops are maximizing their reach is by collaborating with other like-minded businesses.

This symbiosis can mean simply one business stocking products from a nearby neighbour – an independent deli could perhaps stock cakes from an artisan bakery that attracts the same sort of customer.

Collaboration can also take the form of actually sharing physical space (and thus the rent and business rates). A speciality cheese shop, for example, could team up with a niche wine shop. Further along the road you might find a busy hairdresser sharing space with a local fashion retailer.

It’s this kind of creative and communal thinking that will boost the health and appeal of our high streets.

Don’t be lazy online

Bricks and mortar shop owners may see the internet as the enemy but having an effective online presence is vital. Simply setting up a website that merely states you exist and lists your products won’t cut it in today’s consumer market.

Successful independent retailers on the high street will have websites with great design, brand continuity, top-notch functionality, consistent communication with customers as well as regularly updated content such as blogs, news and reviews related to the business.

Again, website design must be aimed at the target audience and a Facebook and Twitter presence is a must.

Get down with the Town Teams

One thing that Portas continues to champion are Town Teams. These are just everyday town-folk getting together to try and boost the local economy, improve the high street experience and foster community spirit.

In 2012 twelve town centres, led by dynamic Town Teams, became the UK’s ‘Portas Pilots’ and won a shared £1.2 million to help rejuvenate their shopping districts and lessons can belearned from their endeavors.

If your town doesn’t have such a team, then why not start one? The ATCM (Association of Town Centre Management), who supports Portas’ projects, has a wealth of resources.

It’s amazing what a group of passionate people can achieve by envisioning a better high street and appealing to the local authority for support.

One thing a Town Team can do to really help its independent businesses is bring the whole high street online. Take a look at the LoveAshford.com scheme for inspiration.

And don’t be afraid to make links with other town teams or pilots to get ideas and collaborate.

Ultimately, the survival of our high streets is going to depend on vision, collaboration and creativity. People still want to shop and in places they like and trust and it’s up to high street movers and shakers to make that happen.

By Nicky Tatley, Senior Writer at BusinessesForSale.com, the market-leading directory of business opportunities from Dynamis. Nicky writes for all titles in the Dynamis Stable including PropertySales.com and FranchiseSales.com.

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