AS I sit in the back seat of an Uber in Melbourne, Australia, the car weaves through two miles of thriving independent stores and service businesses on Toorak Road in one of my favourite districts – South Yarra.
The signs on the street offer 30 minutes free parking, allowing you to pull outside the business you want and pick up the dry cleaning, gourmet hot chocolate or you might just manage a quick haircut.
And it’s 8pm with most businesses open and ready for custom – because they know they are reliant on city commuters arriving back after a day in the Central Business District.
There is not a vacant shop in sight.
I have been working in Australia for years. My work here is to help my retail clients, and not because the retail in Australia is broken. It’s because they want to turn a good retail business into a great retail business.
They invest in customer experience and service, store visual merchandising and significant training – specifically to ensure that they don’t sell to customers but serve them well. They have not addressed this problem because they are on the brink of the cliff edge.
So, how on earth can the position on many of our beautiful UK high streets be so very different?
Many reasons – for sure – and most of them I explored when creating my recent documentary for ITV on the End of the High Street. I toured the country visiting the great, the broken and the newcomers with passion and ideas.
There has been a retail evolution; online shopping has seen significant growth from a nation of customers who seek an efficient, economical and effective way to shop.
If you think the online shopping phenomenon is driven only by price, look again. A wealth of brands use the channel to build direct and very personal relationships. It has been a growth platform for new and emerging brands. And I feel one significant point is often left out of the rationale. As creatures of habit, we have chosen online because we were already frustrated and fed up with a lot of what the high street offered.
Retail specialists in the know engage with changing consumer behaviour and habits with every heartbeat. We may not have all the answers – but we are in tune with the changes and understand the motivation. We are in the retail space every day – we watch, we listen, we learn, we deliver – and we are ready to engage in advance of the next opportunity.
However the majority of those making decisions for our high streets’ future are not in touch with consumer habits. Indeed our High Street Minister has never been involved with retail or consumer services prior to his appointment.
Jake Berry MP has a very busy mandate. As well as his own constituency of Rossendale and Darwen, he is the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse. He is also the High Street Minister, but doesn’t have space for that in his Twitter biography.
A solicitor by training, he specialised in housing and development. I asked him why we have had five High Street Ministers in six years. He admitted there had been reshuffling, but reaffirmed his commitment to change. His plans include the reinstating of the High Street Awards and he has also created a panel charged with creating a report on the health of the high street, which will be headed by Sir John Timpson.
It seems to me, that while strategy and longer-term planning should not be dissuaded, there is significant need for action. It was 2011 when the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, instructed Mary Portas to conduct a review of the UK high streets.
Soon eight years will have passed, the problems still exist and many feel frustrated that simple changes that could have made a difference have not happened.
There are obvious wins, like free parking (limited time allocation, i.e. 30 minutes and no return in two hours); accessibility (a lot of our high streets offer challenges for those who would rely on them the most); cleanliness, safe and hygienic public toilets and a review of rates for business owners.
They were obvious too in 2011 – but very few changes have happened across the majority of towns and cities.
Dig deeper, and it seems part of the problem lies with who is actually responsible. In my interview with Jake Berry MP, he highlighted local authorities and said they have the decision-making powers.
Local authorities fraught with budget constraints and an ever-increasing job-list don’t always seem to have the focus or indeed the ability to create an ambitious and yet realistic plan for place management.
BID teams (Business Improvement District) are created of well-meaning, local stakeholders volunteering to make a difference. I believe working collaboratively is absolutely part of the solution, but often these teams lack an Outside-In approach – either replicating ideas from other places which maybe not relevant or suitable for their area or overlooking the most important people – shoppers and residents.
So what do we need?
Focus and realism. We need to accept that our high streets will face a natural reduction in retail space.
We don’t need to shop, we have to be enticed to ‘want’ to shop – and that means understanding the changing needs of today’s shopper, including hours of opening and much improved customer service.
We enjoy more social with our retail, and want a wide variety of food and beverage offers beyond bland national coffee shop chains.
We want to be able to run errands while we shop – so its natural that not only do we want a good mix of dentists, hairdressers, beauty salons but easily accessible medical centres, nurseries and public services too.
If more people live and work in the area, then there is more propensity that people will want shops and services close by too, so housing development must take a very real and sensible approach.
Human instinct is to feel safe and secure – we will use spaces that feel good, clean, tidy, safe and free from a monopoly of ‘chuggers’ and energy firms aggressively selling to you. The better a place looks, the more we feel attracted to it – less graffiti, more green spaces – and it is human instinct to respect a space that looks cared for.
Consumers must shop there – it is a little hypocritical to complain about the disappearance of shops if you haven’t spent cash their in years. If you want traditional retail to survive, you need to support it. I have dedicated eight years of free seminars and support to over 1,000 Yorkshire micro-businesses through my partnership with Welcome To Yorkshire.
I have built brilliant relationships with some fantastic entrepreneurs and we have a wealth of talent in our independent retail offer. That said, most of them are incredibly honest about how challenging business is, and just how financially limiting it can be.
A lot of retail independents are not in business to make fortunes, and can often have years of just breaking even, if not suffering losses. They have a belief that their offer is important to their community and providing a service as well as adding to the value of a place.
If they offer good value for money, put customers at the heart of their business and are passionate experts in what they do, that is exactly the type of store I wish to buy from and support.
I would ensure a mechanic completed my car MoT, and a doctor cared for my family’s health needs. I think it is time that we started to ensure some true experts were part of this evolution of the high street, and put the right plans in place. Before it really is too late.
Tomorrow: Rebecca Long Bailey, the Shadow Business Secretary, on Labour’s plans for high streets.
Kate Hardcastle MBE is a retail and commercial expert from Yorkshire who presented the TV documentary End of the High Street. Her website can be found via this link The Customer Whisperer