As part of a group of writers I was invited to comment for AMT (Action for Market Towns) on the 1 year anniversary of the Portas review having been published. For more details, and to see all the other contributions, visit: AMT: Portas Review One Year On.
One of the statements that really angered me when the Portas review came out was the comment, I think made by David Cameron, that “online shopping and mobile commerce is a threat to retail.” My view was, yes, it is, but only for those retailers who ignore it!
The Consumer Revolution
The thing is that for about 300 years “shopping” barely changed, then, in 1994 the first ecommerce site took its first transaction. 18 years ago online shopping was born, and it’s moved on at such a pace – there had been no greater change in capability for the sector in so short a time. At least not until January 2007 when Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone, putting the internet into our pockets and creating the smartphone phenomenon; in just under 6 years, mobile, which has enabled us to access the internet, price comparisons, search, online shopping, consumer reviews and social media on the move, has created a consumer revolution.
How the internet has changed the way WE shop…
Such rapid change hit traditional retail hard, the high street was in melt-down, big businesses in particular not knowing how to respond quickly enough to this new, profoundly changed, consumer who expected so much more from them and had information about their competition at their fingertips.
This new shopper displayed 2 very district traits, their shopping mission was either functional / transactional (all about price) or experiential, social, requiring more than just a product but “theatre” and entertainment. The functional shopper was fickle, used price comparison sites to find the lowest cost provider. The social shopper was connected, seeking feedback from friends about where to enjoy the best service, the best after-sales support, the best quality; price was less important than the overall value for this consumer.
A necessary Retail Evolution, or face extinction…
Retailers who failed to respond, and those who continue to fail to respond, to the needs and wants of this new consumer should consider online a threat – in fact if they don’t step up and evolve they will go the way of dinosaurs. But that may not be a bad thing… businesses failing to respond to their customers only have themselves to blame for their demise. It’s painful, but it’s natural selection.
The Consumer has taken control
Consumers are determining the fate of their high streets, voting with their feet and with their wallets. Long have “clone towns” been berated, it’s not what people seem to want from their town centres, so step by step the consumer is forcing a change.
The door is open for new, emerging retailers and service providers (typically entrepreneurial indies) who “get” the whole concept of a new consumer and who will create a model that really works, both for here and now AND which is also sufficiently dynamic to respond in the future. In fact it comes as no surprise to see stats from the Local Data Company that the proportion of independent outlets (retail, hospitality and leisure) has increased to 68% in the top UK towns. We are now hearing terms like “boutiquing of the high street” being used to describe the shift as slowly but surely the consumer wins and clone towns loose.
Don’t fear technology, embrace it, leverage the opportunity to really engage with the NEW consumer
So, Cameron and Portas should have known that we were facing consumer revolution, a rejection of the high street as it had become. Now the high street (the generic term for the retail centres of our communities), and the retail and consumer facing businesses within it, need to ensure that they continue to evolve, embracing new technologies that enhance the customer experience and leveraging the internet and mobile commerce as a practical way to increase sales. Those who bury their heads in the sand and fail to adapt should certainly feel threatened, if they don’t engage the new consumer they too will go the way of the dinosaurs.
Innovation in Action: Indie Retail Campaigns
In 2011 I was invited to launch “Independent Retailer Month” in the UK. This “shop-local” campaign, which originated in the USA, had been proven to have positive social and economic impacts on the areas which embraced the opportunity and made the effort to connect people with their local, independent traders.
Whilst I passionately believed in the campaign I could not have predicted how it would evolve.
As 2012 comes to a close I look back at what’s been achieved and surprise myself! We’ve developed a year-round campaign that offers support, advice, ideas and inspiration to help independent businesses who serve consumers to get, and stay, open for business (www.independentretail.co.uk).
This is promoted through 3 annual campaign events:
- The original Independent Retailer Month (www.independentretailermonth.co.uk)
- The “Celebrate an independent Christmas”
(www.indiechristmas.co.uk) which launched in 2012 and focused on creating Christmas Shopping Crawls in retail centres UK wide.
- The “Enjoy an Indie Easter” (www.indieeaster.co.uk – website coming soon) which will launch in 2013 and will be a family focused occasions, with Indie Easter Egg hunts (similar to shopping crawls) to make visiting the local shops in the school holiday lots of fun for all the family!
We’ve also been able to create an online directory that is free for retailers to use that enables shoppers to find indies in their area (by town or postcode) enabling them to make a concerted effort to shop with the smaller, independent retailers. (www.independentshops.co.uk)
Changing Consumer Spending Habits
Our campaigns intend to change shopping habits, we aim to educate consumers about the positive benefits to them and to their local community, of spending a little more of their hard-earned cash with local businesses.
Pledge to Support Independent Retail in 2013
In 2013 we’re inviting people to make a pledge to divert 20% of what they would spend with online giants or multiple retailers to the smaller companies in their area. Of course this has become much easier to promote thanks to the high profile tax avoidance cases – consumers seem quite open to diverting spend away from some of the bigger brands, particular those who have not been squeaky clean!!
Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
What I am particularly proud of is that all of this has been achieved with no funding. The achievements are testament to a handful of passionate contributors – I’ve invested my time, my husband Andrew Rayner is responsible for all the internet marketing, web sites and social media, and Sophie Boulton, a graphic designer whose brother married my cousin (!), has helped develop all the branding for the different strands we now have from the original Independent Retailer Month brand.
Some of our overheads have been covered by a handful of sponsors, but the achievements compared to the costs should be a lesson to many who hold the belief that without a budget nothing can be done. We demonstrate that this is a false belief, what matters is people wanting to work together to achieve something positive.
When the community works together so much can be achieved
Through the “Celebrate an Independent Christmas” campaign activities we’ve proven how, when local businesses pull together, they don’t need budgets or much cash at all, they just need determination, commitment and belief that what they are doing will make a difference. We’ve engaged support from over 50 towns / locations UK-wide to create and run “Christmas shopping crawls.” Local people are encouraged to pop into every shop on a “shopping crawl map”, meet the retailers, get their maps stamped (no purchase necessary) and once complete they can enter their map into a prize draw. So far feedback from those involved has been extremely positive, with businesses and shoppers alike loving the concept.
Drawing people back to their community by making it more fun!
Turning what could have been considered a chore, “doing the Christmas shopping”, into a fun activity, with a possible prize, plays on the concept of “gamification” and has worked well. We’ve also leveraged consumer engagement to share powerful stats with them about the value of their £ when it’s spent with the local community – we hope this helps to influence some changes in their shopping behaviours as a result of their increased awareness of their own, personal impact.
A great achievement, a great impact, something to build on
There was no budget for any of this in the vast majority of towns, most of what they have done has been because people were willing to donate a little time, some of their resources and local sponsors saw the value of being involved and therefore contributed some cash where costs needed to be covered. 50 areas have amassed a prize fund of over £25,000 – that’s from a starting point of nothing and in under 3 months. To me that’s evidence that innovation doesn’t have to be costly or complex, it just has to be effective!
I believe that the 50+ Christmas Shopping Crawls will have had more impact, more quickly on more businesses and more consumers than the millions spent on launching Portas Pilots…
Whilst there is no denying cash is required for many areas to address real issues and sort out “hygiene factors,” for the vast majority it’s actually “activation” within the business community (stop moaning, start doing) that makes a difference.
Success depends entirely on the relationship between the local traders and the community they serve…
I for one passionately believe in the power of community, and only by re-connecting businesses with local people will there be a shift in the way we shop and a positive impact on our local economies. I also believe it’s the duty of local businesses to ensure they are providing a relevant, appropriate offer for their local community. If they aren’t / can’t then perhaps they need to reinvent themselves or move on.
We don’t need government handouts, we need an environment that enables innovation and encourages entrepreneurials.
Ultimately the new model should be led by the needs of the community, delivered by entrepreneurs and businesses, supported by fair structures and policies that ensure a level playing field for all businesses. Sadly, at present, with the way business rates are calculated and corporation tax is handled that’s not the case. Hopefully, and with the support of groups lobbying for the interests of retailers, consumer facing brands, and our high streets / town centres, the government will recognise their responsibility isn’t to offer hand-outs to encourage innovation but to ensure that they level the playing field to allow entrepreneurial businesses to compete in a market that in recent years has become dominated by large brands and online giants.