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Q&A with Retail Champion Clare Rayner

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Having been established in the US a number of years ago, Independent Retailer Month arrives in the UK in July courtesy of retail analyst and consultant Clare Rayner. The idea behind the campaign is to celebrate the important role independent retail plays on the British high street in providing employment and diversity in consumers’ shopping experiences. Rayner - dubbed the Retail Champion for the work she does promoting the industry - explains to Retail Gazette that it is important to support independent retail because many of those operating in the sector could prove to be the next generation of high street multiples.

Why does the UK need a thriving independent retail sector? Independents add variety and personality. Clone high streets are reportedly one reason why the consumer has migrated to out of town and online – when you can’t tell the difference between a high street in Hertford or Hereford, Bath or Boston, then there’s no pull to go there. Think about the impact on footfall a local market has – simply the attraction of a variety of passionate owner-run retailers (albeit stalls) draws crowds of shoppers. A vibrant high street with a mix of chains and independents has a similar effect. Shopping should be sensational – a experiential day out, not a chore. Independents add that to an otherwise samey high street.

How important are indies to the high street? Independents do not have the buying power of multiples – typically they can’t compete on price on known brands so in order to compete they have to get creative and source less well-known brands. They are an outlet for more individual products and often a critical route to market for local producers and designers. Where multiples present consumers with an easy, known solution to their needs often independents present ideas, innovation and products consumers would not have access to through other routes.

Your views on Mary Portas’s appointment as the government’s new retail tsar? I am sure Mary Portas’s appointment hasn’t done any harm in terms of getting consumers thinking about their local high street. In terms of my view though, I would have to echo that of British Retail Consortium Director General Stephen Robertson, who welcomes her arrival but is keen to see even-handed approach. He said the high street needs a mix of retailers of all shapes and sizes, and I would have to say this sums up my views very eloquently.

What are the key retail issues the government should be addressing? Rates would be top of my list. I hear from many local retailers where I’m based in St Albans about how the recent rates increases have practically wiped out their profits. In a period when sales are down, consumer confidence is low, the increase in rates has been and will continue to be the tipping point for a few small business who are only just surviving. Of course one might assert that the business is not very viable if that’s all it takes, but the consequences are increasing vacancy rates and increasing unemployment – so it may be a very fine line for the government between raising much needed revenues and creating a problem elsewhere. I think the government could also be supporting landlords, particularly smaller, private landlords, as well as addressing parking fees. None of these factors are controllable by the retailers, but all of them massively impact them.

How can retailers work together to improve the high street? When I speak to independent retailers I absolutely encourage them to collaborate – cross promote each other e.g. beauty salon promotes hairdressers or baker promotes deli – it’s about sharing a similar customer base and creating connections between them so that the consumer feels part of a community and not just like another transaction. Independent retailer month should help encourage indies to think more creatively and more collaboratively, including their suppliers, to create a whole month of fun and excitement in their locations – I believe if they can reignite the consumers passion for the enjoyment of shopping, to remind them about their more unique products and to provide them with a more personal service then it might just get a few hooked on shopping locally once again.

In what ways do independents struggle? Sometimes they lack skill or practical expertise around the planning and controlling of the business – so from really analysing their sales data to understand what ranges are profitable, to planning by season, to pricing and promotions, to stock profiling. In my experience there are some excellent quick wins that can help a relatively profitable independent retailer become a great deal more profitable, and these usually centre on implementing robust, repeatable processes and systems to plan, manage and control their businesses. I’ve found that many want to grow but are so constrained by their own time. Of course when they unlock some of their time by using processes and systems they can become scalable -or even saleable – firms.

Describe your utopian high street I don’t think you can judge a “perfect high street” – when I talk to retailers about strategy and direction my first question is about deeply understanding their local customer, ensuring the right range, pricing and look is achieved to match the needs and wants of the local community. Given the diversity of communities in the UK there won’t be one model – and that’s part of the problem – right now from town to town there is little variation, certain chains are present in a massive majority of towns such that regardless of local community the retail offer is similar.

To give you an answer to this in any other way would be ironic since the clone high street is exactly what we’re striving to avoid!

Published on Wednesday 08 June by Editorial Assistant

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