‘The death of the high street’ is a theme that is often discussed in retail circles but one person unwilling to let the UK’s town centre shops fall into permanent decline is the businesswoman, writer and television personality Mary Portas.
Earlier today the star of TV shows ‘Secret Shopper’ & ‘Mary Queen of Shops’ was named as the figurehead of a new government campaign to help protect local retail businesses during these tough financial times.
Portas will be leading a government review focusing on how to boost trading on high streets up and down the country, in reaction to many smaller retail centres seeing vacancy rates significantly rise in recent years.
When Retail Gazette caught up with Portas at wholesaler Palmer & Harvey’s Pro-Retail 2011 event last week, she was keen to stress the importance of thriving local retailers to the people of this country.
“I don’t care who you are, even if you live in the centre of London, you want to feel that there is a shop near you that is open, trusted and reliable, cares about you and wants to be part of your community,” she said.
“It is a natural human need and it is the antithesis of internet retailing.”
With the growing popularity of e-commerce showing no signs of slowing down, critics often anticipate the eventual disappearance of the small local high street as consumers become increasingly comfortable with visiting only major centres, supermarkets and websites to buy their goods.
Portas argues however that effective local shops can offer a personable and tangible experience which can not be duplicated online or by major retailers; all independents need to do is successfully tap into their particular communities’ needs.
This does not mean however that Portas is against the Tesco, Boots or Primarks of this world (she is quick to point out that her PR company Yellow Door works with some of the biggest global companies), but she thinks that there needs to be more variety on offer.
“It is the mix and choice that people want. Sometimes I want to watch a blockbuster movie but sometimes I want to see a little indie arts film. That’s the way the world is and that is how people consume anything,” Portas added.
“There will always be the big retailers and there will always be the small but the way to get a balance of great retail is to combine the two.”
She talks about how we are all now ‘universal shoppers’ who are impossible to pigeon-hole and who all have unique interests and tastes.
Retailers can not meet everyone’s differing needs but according to Portas by being proactive and smart about how they do business they can do more to offer a unique service.
“The foot-flow outside my local tube station in the morning is unbelievable. If I was the local store on that road, I would be selling coffee & papers to go, even setting up on the street to do it, and just this small thing, I think, would increase their profitability by about 50 per cent.”
Due to the economic downturn, worries over the environment and the rise of digital services, consumers needs have changed over a short period of time and Portas worries that smaller retailers are not moving fast enough to meet customers’ evolving demands.
She believes that consumers must be shown by local retailers how smaller centres can provide for their shopping needs, or the UK will end up with a number of “ghost towns”.
It is not all in the hands of independent retailers though, and that is why Portas is helping the government create a strategy that will give these businesses the best possible chance to survive.
“I think there is a whole piece of work that needs to be done on the way we can promote independent retailers.”
“The rental rates are getting out of hand and we know that if a big brand name wants a space on a high street they will get a knock-down rate compared to an indie because councils believe the larger retailer will encourage other traders in.
“Retailers can not affect that at the moment, they need big-mouths like me and pressure groups to help out. They can affect however, how they deliver really good home-spun local retailing.”
Less focus should be put on ‘buy one get one free’ deals argues Portas and shops should offer more ‘buy one give one away’ schemes, where retailers spend a percentage of sales supporting local charities and good causes.
She argues that this promotes customer loyalty and feeds into consumers’ desires to become more involved in their local communities.
Portas concedes that a large retailer like Waitrose already does this very well with schemes like its green token initiative, and with nearly all of the major supermarkets looking to expand their convenience formats at present, competition will only increase.
But Portas counters: “You have to ask yourself; why are the multiples talking so much about convenience? Because there is huge market potential there.
“Independents just have to understand what consumers want today. At the heart of this is superb service and great characters, it costs nothing and is the number one most important thing.”
Pressures are huge on small retailers at present however, and it can be hard to be creative when you are working so hard to make ends meet.
However if new government measures give these pressurised stores more room to breathe, perhaps empty shops around the country can start to be filled again be a resurgent retail sector.
“When, as consumers, we spend so much money on goods, we need great local retail,” Portas concludes.
“Some people do not realise how important this is and I think it needs a new body that represents indies and gets behind them in a big way, to be a champion of independent retail.”
It seems that those independents may have just found that champion.