Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2012 is the year when traditional retail starts to hurt

Photography by johnthurm
Ouch. I spent 10 years in fashion retail before I went into marketing and later into mobile back in 2000. I still have an affinity for the sector, even though it’s very hard work and not very well paid. So it’s with interest that I picked up on Nic Brisbourne’s article http://www.theequitykicker.com/2011/12/20/2012-the-year-when-traditional-retail-really-starts-to-hurt/ . I can believe that this is the case for sure. We’ve already seen the High Street being hit by the double dip recession as well as online competition. And it’s all very well for those of us in the tech world to cheer that clients now need to get their online and mobile offering right. But it’s not quite so simple.
What worries me is that not everyone shops online or ever will shop online or will ever be able to shop online. Their finances, life circumstance or mental acuity may not support them doing that.. There are still many people in this country who work on a cash-only basis. Because that's the only way they can work. But not only that, the High Street is a social lifeline for so many people that it's demise could have devastating effects on community. For some people, the only other human face they see all day could be a local shopkeeper. I know working from home, alone, much of the time, means that that is the case for me. I like popping in to say hello to my local newsagent and buy a bar of chocolate. I recognise the checkout staff at my local, small supermarket and they’re friendly. This is a very nice feeling. I like to be able to really look at a product before I buy it as and when I have the luxury of time to do my shopping. I like to know there are other people out there.
And for these social reasons, now is the time to rethink what the High Street means and how property companies (for they're the ones dictating rents), the council (they dictate the rates) and retail fits into that picture and the community. I would hate to see the demise of my local stores. I'd hate to be restricted to moving my shopping online. I like going to my local town centre to do my shopping. My Mum goes up to town every single day to do her shopping and that's where she bumps into people she knows. If she didn't do that, she mightn't see anyone other than my Dad day in day out. Are you going to deny her that?
At the same time, the people working in the retail sector, at all levels, from cleaner to general manager, need to think about what they have to do to make a visit to their store a positive experience and one that will be repeated. If fashion and electronics are first for the chopping board, then the retail staff have to up their game unless they want to work in a warehouse. It’s not just about pricing, it’s also about product knowledge, effective and efficient customer service and about making it a sociable and rewarding experience.
And of course, we have to recognise the effects of the recession, of austerity measures, of world economies tanking, of ecological concerns over waste. This has effected changes in consumers too. People are shopping much more carefully, thinking about what they buy and thinking what they actually need and will actually use.
I'm all for technology but I believe it should support community and human well-being not destroy it. I love the work that Space Makers have been doing with the regeneration of Brixton Village market and now The Brickbox are doing similar things at my local Tooting Market. But that’s taken hard graft and commitment and a vision. And they’re only at the start of the journey. I wonder if Mary Portas’s recent recommendations, even if implemented well, will be enough http://www.bis.gov.uk/policies/business-sectors/retail/high-street-review ? Will people sit up and take notice. Or will the online giants like Amazon clean-up? Or maybe there’s another solution out there that’s just waiting to happen…. ?

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