The popularity of the internet has had a huge effect on British retailing. In fact the impact of the web has probably been greater than anyone could have predicted at the turn of the millennium.
Sadly, some of our traditional High Street retailers have become casualties of this changing landscape and many high profile retailers have gone under since the first notable casualty — Woolworths — back in 2008.
However, I don’t believe a tipping point has been reached in terms of the demise of traditional retailers. Over the past 12 months we have seen an increase in brands going bust, but in my view it will even out this year and then tail off.
Those who have survived have been able to reinvent themselves successfully by creating great social campaigns, leveraging the mobile space, improving customer service both in-store and online and targeting customers with great in-store promotions. Those that didn't simply failed to innovate and may have relied too heavily on bank loans with crippling interest payments.
So why has online retail become so popular with UK consumers? Without doubt there are considerable savings to be made by shopping online but it isn’t just the unbeatable discounts that have led to shoppers deserting the High Street.
Online shopping offers much more than convenience. It’s really all about the experience. For example, consumers who stay loyal to their favourite online shopping destination can tap into a realm of added value from bespoke, instant deals and product recommendations right the way through to seeing what their friends and family are buying or recommending. This type of engagement is extremely hard to replicate on the High Street in real time.
The High Street should be trying to compete in the areas where online retailers struggle, such as customer service and return or exchange policies. Online consumers have a legal right to return unwanted goods that they’ve purchased online but there are still retailers on the High Street with “no returns” policies.
Another great way to compete is by holding in-store events using staff with specialist knowledge. These events can be extremely popular, especially when offering discount promotions and a few nibbles! This is a great value added experience that cannot be replicated online. Publicising these events using viral social campaigns can amplify the number of attendees.
Events like this could encourage more people to part with their cash in-store. Also, High Street retailers should improve their store experiences so they become destinations for out-and-about shoppers who want value-added service that you just can't replicate online.
Despite the widely reported failings of some household name brands, I don’t believe British shoppers will lose all confidence in the High Street as a whole.
There are plenty of consumers out there who don’t want to buy every single item online. Many customers will always prefer to be able to look at and touch items for themselves. That’s particularly true for clothing. But I think confidence in gift card purchases has taken a bashing and this may be a big loser for lots of retailers — even those not in trouble.
So the overall picture is far from doom and gloom for retailers. There are plenty of opportunities out there. Smaller and independent traders can certainly take advantage. Most have no red tape and can therefore make quick changes in ways that the big High Street stores can’t.
We find that the independent online retailers are at times able to run bigger deals with us than the High Street stores — not because they have bigger margins, but because they don’t have to get board members to sign off the promotion and they typically have lower overheads. They’re major advantages.
Steve Barnes is the MD and founder of NetVoucherCodes.
You don’t have to look far to see concrete signs of the recession hitting small businesses hard. Walk down any UK high street and the empty shops say it all.
But boarded up shops is one thing — the danger is that they could soon become piles of rubble as unused properties are demolished to avoid paying rates.
Parliamentary under-secretary of state Bob Neill has announced this month that the government is to take an extra £400m per annum from businesses next year, by scrapping business rate relief given to the owners of empty properties.
But don’t blame us, says Neill.
"This is a Labour tax,” he says. “There are many Labour taxes that we would like to scrap, but we are simply unable at this point because of the disastrous fiscal legacy left by Labour. But we are taking action to tackle problems with business rates — such as scrapping Labour's retrospective ports tax and by increasing small business rate relief."
In fact, Labour introduced this tax in order to encourage regeneration schemes before the recession took hold. Obviously, this “incentive” to keep business premises occupied could not compete with the global recession.
So will we really see businesses bulldozing their own premises to avoid rates?
It’s happening already according to the British Property Federation. What it calls the “bombsite Britain” tax has led to millions of square feet of property being demolished since its introduction two years ago.
There are plenty of empty premises, that’s for sure. According to the Local Data Company, 13 per cent of all town centre shops are now lying vacant. The majority of the boarded-up blackspots are in the Midlands and the North with a shocking 29 per cent of all businesses in Blackpool closed up.
Napolean Bonaparte called us a nation of shopkeepers. The fact is that our high streets reflect the state of our nation and it doesn’t look good — some are turning onto ghost towns, others are high street clones with few independent stores.
So what can be done to encourage more enterprise on our high streets?
People power is one way. Pop-up shops, cafes and galleries are moving into empty premises and using them to improve community life. By starting small, many projects have been able to get off the ground. Some have turned into permanently successful going concerns — like the Dock Kitchen in West London which was set up in the old Virgin recording studios complex.
But pop-up shops aren’t going to save the high street single-handedly. Even economic recovery may not immediately change the fortunes of our shop-keepers, according to the British Retail Consortium. Director general, Stephen Robertson, has said: "Many of the problems of town centres have more fundamental causes than simply the economic slowdown. High street shops are often battling to pay big bills for business rates and rents”.
The BRC has called for a moratorium on business and property rates. Certainly, national and local government have to find ways to reduce the barriers that stop entrepreneurs setting up businesses on our high streets — from business rates to planning and even parking.
Something’s got to be done — before boarded-up Britain becomes bombsite Britain.
For this month’s issue of MyDonut, we've interviewed three small businesses that have been around for more than 100 years. Two of them sent us some great photos – so good that I thought we should have a blog post about them.
As a child of the 1970s - an era before the great retail modernisation of the 80s, I find these images of Parsons the Jewellers in Bristol and London cheesemonger Paxton and Whitfield familiar and strangely comforting. Perhaps you will, too.
This is the Jermyn Street shop interior as it was in the 1960s:
The exterior of the shop looks today much as it always has – it still has a reassuringly old-fashioned air from the outside:
But the inside is much more modern, though it retains its ‘artisan’ feel:
The three images show the changing faces of Parson’s the Jewellers, which has inhabited three different sites in Bristol over the last three hundred years.
The original Old Market premises before being demolished to make way for a roundabout in 1966. Just creeping into the top left is the base of a statue of Cupid that was perched precariously on top of the fascia. The statue disappeared when the shop was moved and was rediscovered above a jeweller in Hatton Garden, London, where it remains.
I’m not sure about the location of this shop but, there is a clue in the newspaper advert for Parsons next to the photo. I’d say it’s the Clare Street branch, opened in 1923 and long since closed.
The shop now resides in The Mall in the centre of Bristol – you can see a photo of the modern-day premises here: http://www.parsonsjewellersltd.co.uk/
If you’re interested in photographs of small shops, then I strongly recommend Shutting Up Shop: The Decline of the Traditional Small Shop by the photographer John Londei. It’s a marvellous book which powerfully evokes an era before mega-chains when almost every shop was a small family-run businesses and each had its own unique flavour. Is this something we’ll ever see again?
By the way, we’d also love you to send us your own images of old businesses and business premises. Just email them and we’ll try to include them on the site.