What is a retailer? Redefining the meaning of retail…

In recent weeks we’ve been hearing from various sources that “the future of the high street isn’t retail”. I was thinking about this, because I believe that this really depends on how you define retail…

What is a retailer?

To me a retailer is a business that welcomes a consumer, a member of the public, with “open doors” although in fact they may well be online only, or a market stall!

This has changed in the past few years… Nowadays I believe a retail business can include the obvious – shops – but also the less obvious – cafes, bars, hospitality, leisure, salons as well as estate agents, recruitment, banks, post offices, libraries and even tax advisors and solicitors!

Why do I consider so many different types of business to be retail businesses?

The reason why I believe that ANY consumer facing / serving brand is essentially a retail business is because ALL of these businesses NEED to have a retail mind-set these days – customers EXPECT a level of service, to be engaged, to be provided with a considerate and appropriate level of contact / advice and to be informed of promotions, activities and events.

Retail isn’t exclusively about selling a product any more either… certainly the lines became very blurred when swathes of product was digitised! Salons, bars, cafes etc. may have considered themselves “retail” for years, and they certainly were from a business rates perspective. They sold little for consumers to take home with them however, the vast majority of their offer was for “consumption” or rather “enjoyment” on their premises. Other businesses such as banks, post offices, estate agents, tax advisors etc may seem even less typically “retail” but again offer a customer-facing, service-led proposition, open to the general public and with limited product that can be “taken away”.

The fact is we need to redefine retail from the old view of “shops” which simply provided a “break-bulk” service enabling consumers to procure and take-away small quantities of physical product supplied to the retailers, in bulk, by brands and manufacturers for individual, at-home consumption. We need to define NEW view of “shops” and retail in general as the industry sector which provide the general public with access to products, services and experiences…

The NEW definition of a retailer…

We must also not forget that retailers are businesses who aim to produce a profitable outcome for the business owner… so including “public services” such as libraries in the mix might be a step to far for SOME but I am not so sure… I think we DO need public services to think more like businesses. Let’s not forget that a library has a budget, it has to operate efficiently within a budget, it has to contribute social value and therefore the definition of a profitable outcome might not be about profits as cash, but it would be about contribution to the community.

More and more businesses are renting retail space, paying a commercial value for that space, but are social enterprises, focused on contributing more social than economic value. As long as that space produces the revenue it needs for landlords (and potentially a wide variety of pension funds and investments) and contributes a fair amount in the relevant taxes (business rates) then maybe we can see a shift toward more businesses that make a stronger social than financial contribution to a community.

*** Note: This blog isn’t going to talk about whether or not landlords and rents are fair / appropriate, nor about the business rates burden… the reference to these above is merely to acknowledge that “commercial property” will still need to be treated as such. We can’t expect empty property to be “handed over” to social enterprises as the impact will be further damage to the eco-system… this is a WHOLE other blog / debate! ***

So, my suggestion is that rather than saying “the future of the high street isn’t about retail”, let’s start to redefine retail… let’s understand that any entity which provides consumers with access to goods and services from premises, or indeed via the internet, should consider themselves retailers and start to ensure that they are contributing to the economic and social value within the community and that they are delivering a great experience to customers.

Once we’ve got that nailed – the contribution to the community and the customer experience – I think we’ll have a shift in the mix of who occupies high street space, but we’ll see a wonderful evolution of the high street from one which was once all centred on trading to one which is based on providing for the increasingly diverse needs and wants of each and every local community…

To summaries, the future high street IS all about retail, it’s our understanding of what retailing means that has to change, and this is something I will be discussing further at the forthcoming Future High Street Summit.


About Clare Bailey

Clare Bailey, The Retail Champion (formerly Clare Rayner), is one of the most well-known and respected retail experts in the UK. With unrivalled knowledge in retail, high streets and consumer matters, she offers unbiased, independent content – whether engaged as a professional speaker, for broadcast media, or for a written feature. Clare is a business woman, entrepreneur and founder of several small businesses. Having been born into a family of successful business owners, it was inevitable that she’d eventually jump off the corporate treadmill and step out on her own! Today her brand portfolio includes The Retail Champion, The Retail Conference, the Future High Street Summit and the Support for Independent Retail campaign. In addition, she is co-founder of Mobaro Retail UK and a non-exec director of Beed Virtual Assistant Services. Having started her career as a fast-track store management trainee for McDonalds, she went on to work with leading retailers such as M&S, Dixons and Argos. She moved swiftly into management roles before being headhunted into senior consulting roles with global software giant SAP, and international management consulting brand, Accenture. Her corporate background in senior retail, consulting and technology roles, coupled with her experience of creating and running her own business, has enabled her to be equally capable whether consulting to global brands or micro businesses. This unique blend has not only positioned her as a leading expert in all things retail, but has enabled her to add meaningful commentary and insight to the debate around the future of the high street, and, how technology is driving fundamental change in the way consumers, and businesses, interact. Clare has become an influential voice in her field, which has resulted in her becoming a regular media contributor and sought-after conference speaker. Often seen on Good Morning Britain, BBC Breakfast, Sky News, and Chanel 5 (to name a few), Clare speaks on a myriad of retail, high street and consumer issues – but is particular adept when it comes to explaining the context behind retail trading results, newly released data, and government stats, in a palatable and informative manner. In addition to broadcast and conference speaking, Clare is the proud author of two best-selling business books published by Kogan Page - The Retail Champion: 10 Steps to Retail Success, published July 2012 and How to Sell to Retail: The Secrets of Getting Your Product to Market, published February 2013. She has provided contributions to various academic texts, including Retail Marketing Management (published by Pearson). With an engaging, conversational yet informative style, Clare writes for press and content agencies, providing features, articles, blogs and opinion pieces as well as contributions to white papers and reports. However, when the situation demands a more serious style, Clare can deliver - In 2016 she wrote an extensive report for a major insurance and risk law firm, as a retail expert witness, to support a public liability suit. She found that project particularly enjoyable as it played well to her strengths – assimilating large amounts of data and information, identifying the key points and articulating that in an understandable manner. When not on TV or speaking at conferences, Clare’s “day job” sees her supporting consumer-facing businesses through her consultancy services. When asked to describe what she most loves about retail consulting it is typically the opportunity to “dig deep”, getting “under the bonnet”, in order to leverage the business data to uncover the insights that lead to “lightbulb moments”. She also loves working on business change programmes that centre on improving the processes and systems to increase profitability by supporting more rapid, better informed decision making, improving the customer experience, or simply by become more efficient and streamlined. In this respect she considers herself a “business engineer” with a brain that works like a relational database! Due to her years of experience, her logical, objective approach, her quick, rational thinking, she is known for being able to cut through complexity, seeing right through to the crux of issues, finding creative solutions that others may have overlooked. As if all that wasn’t enough, Clare is a working mum, juggling a home life in rural Lincolnshire with her partner, their 5 kids, 4 cats, and geriatric Labrador! For all enquiries, contact Clare directly on 01727 238890 or email champion@retailchampion.co.uk.
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8 Responses to What is a retailer? Redefining the meaning of retail…

  1. ceostylefinch says:

    Hi Clare the future of the high street can be about nothing but retail. Lines blur, demographics change but the underlying principles remain. Towns and cities are defined by their retail mix, day time and night time economies etc. Retail will remain at the heart of towns and cities it’s just the way in which it connects with customers or perhaps more importantly the way customers connect with it that will change. And herein lie the really exciting opportunities. Retail is all about change, seasons, products, merchandising, trends etc and now technology. The retailer that remains open to change will adapt. Change in retail is now longer evolutionary it’s now revolutionary. I love this, I think the next 5 to 10 years will see a renewal and revival of the high street, it’ll just look and feel different to how it does today. But that can be an exciting fun prospect if you’re open to it.

    • Clare Rayner says:

      Mark – we are in violent agreement 🙂 There is so much untapped opportunity and so many unsung heros of the high street – this is why I’ve launched the Future High Street Summit today – I hope you’ll be able to come along!

      • ceostylefinch says:

        Hi Clare,
        I noted that and it looks cool. I’m based in Dublin and currently launching a really exciting innovating operating system aimed at all of the issues we so familiar with. Launching in the UK in early ’14 so I’d hope to have a little free time around the end of March. I’m capable of chatting and talking/presenting if you get stuck or let down. I really love what you’re doing, it’s always been an exciting space and I honestly believe it’s only going to become more so. The future is brighter than many of the retailers currently realise. If I can be of any assistance over this side of the Irish Sea please fell free to give me a shout.
        Best regards,

  2. Nick Croker says:

    Hi Clare, i have to agree that the definition of retail has to change and that the businesses have to ensure they are offering what a traditional retailer has done for many years, high quality customer service. For me the high street has already changed and will continue to do so but to thrive the gov has to take some action to level the playing field with out of town sites, it’s the one thing that i see as a threat to our town centres because without footfall nothing will thrive.

  3. Brian Shields says:

    Retailing, no matter how one defines it, is about customer experience management.
    Retailers need to offer the same consistent message across all channels whether it be bricks and mortar (large or small) or online. Gaining your customer’s confidence and loyalty boils down to excellent customer service. Happy customers spend more, will probably tell their friends and will more than likely return.
    It’s also a question of balance – i.e. how the retailer manages his digital and physical space. Through the same consistent message – excellent customer experience – retailers can have the best of both worlds; one channel feeding off the other. Promote store specials online forcing bricks and mortar store traffic. Use stores as showrooms to drive business online. It’s a question of marketing mix. Above all excellent customer service equals brand quality awareness, loyalty and improved sales.

    • Clare Rayner says:

      Brian, completely agree BUT there are a number of statements floating about that the future of the high street isn’t about retail – there is a view that retail property might be turned into housing, or that commercial space should be repurposed. The issue with that is that this property, which may well contribute to 100s of pension funds etc, needs to earn a respectable return (maybe not at the levels some landlords want to achieve) in order to be viable.
      Stating that the high street won’t be in the main about retailing to me suggested that there was a narrow view about what retailing was. If we’re talking JUST shops selling “stuff” then I would agree, but actually by redefining our view of what retail means then we can stop saying that the future is NOT about retailing and start saying that if retailing is to be part of the future it needs to be transformed – just a subtly different way of looking at the same concern…

      • Brian Shields says:

        I quite agree that there does seem to be a narrow view out there. I like you believe that any business that thinks they are not in sales need to think again.
        However, I believe that in order for retailers/service providers of all kinds to be successful they should adopt an service excellence attitude to assist in their quest in convincing landlords and their critics that they are worth their salt. I suppose I was also trying to be subtle in my criticism of the state of customer service – which in my experience has, in addition to the economy, had a great deal to do with the demise of bricks and mortar retailers on the high street. Retailers need to up their game and get serious about excellent service.

  4. Would it be fair to say that along with the need to broaden what is classed as retail, councils and planners also need to consider what “The High Street Experience” will be. Rather than rushing to fill empty shops with anything they can.

    I appreciate that planning a narrative for a high street and attracting the right soft of business would be difficult at the best of times. However, there is little character to a high street full of pound shops.

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