At the beginning of the month, a petition to introduce a ‘Shop Out to Help Out’ scheme was launched in a bid to help struggling independent high street retailers.
The idea, instigated by membership programme Refundable and in the same vein as the Eat Out to Help Out last summer, calls for customers to be rewarded a 50 per cent 50 per cent rebate when shopping in small or independent retailers that employer fewer than 10 staff.
With over thousands of shops having closed permanently within the last year, the scheme could potentially act as a lifeline to retailers, providing them with a safety net as they emerge from restrictions.
Refundable is currently encouraging both consumers and retailers to sign the petition, with the goal of reaching 100,000 signatures.
While it is clear that smaller retailers need more support during the transition back to normality in the wake of “freedom day” earlier this week, there are still doubts that a scheme of this nature would not be enough to revive high streets.
Polly Barnfield, chief executive of Maybe, a member of the government’s High Street Taskforce, said that “at the moment, all help should be welcomed and embraced including schemes like Shop Out To Help Out”.
However, she stated that while the scheme could provide the short term financial boost that many retailers and high streets need, “there’s more that needs to be done than just that”.
“To sustain longer term recovery and growth, collaboration between retailers is essential to turn our high streets into destinations with a mix of retail and hospitality that shoppers want to go to for the mix,” she explained.
“It’s about enthusing and engaging consumers across social platforms to drive them towards local physical stores rather than ecommerce stores, creating ‘localism on steroids’ so that shoppers are convinced that your local High Street can provide.”
Dr Eleonora Pantano, retail marketing expert at the University of Bristol, agreed: “The demise of physical stores and the high street started long before the pandemic, which has accelerated the decline.
“To really boost retail sectors, retailers need more substantial financial support to help them adapt from being just a place to shop to offering a memorable experience, which gives them a competitive advantage against online options and the chance of winning customer loyalty.
“When the Shop Out to Help Out money runs out, shoppers won’t return unless there is something special to keep them coming back.”
Last year’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme was hailed a success by the hospitality sector with the majority of businesses reporting that it led to a boost in sales. At the same time, it was met with criticism amid accusations that it helped spur on the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, during a time when the vaccine was not yet widely available.
Despite this, according to Big Hospitality, over 70 per cent of businesses said they’d like to see the scheme repeated again in the future as more than 100 million meals were claimed by diners under the scheme. In addition, booking for the final day, August 31, was up 216 per cent year-on-year.
While this scheme was successful, could this be replicated with one for retailers?
Helen Ashton, chief executive at Shape Beyond, said Eat Out to Help Out was a success as “discounts on food in restaurants are relatively rare and the timing post the first lockdown was great when people were desperate to get out”.
“Discounting of consumer goods is likely to be less impactful as it is a regular occurrence in the retailing seasonal calendar,” she added.
Earlier this week, England ushered in the so-called “freedom day”, which marked the official lifting of Covid restrictions. So would this be the perfect time to launch a Shop Out to Help Out discount scheme?
Rupert Cook, marketing director at marketing agency Gekko, said that the summer holidays were traditionally a relatively quiet period for many retailers, so it may be more effective to give the high street a boost once the autumn term starts as people would be back from their breaks or back to work as the furlough scheme is tapered off.
He added that for those that like to start their Christmas shopping early, Shop Out to Help Out could provide an added incentive.
“What’s probably more pressing for businesses right now is the Covid self isolation rules that are no longer fit for purpose,” he explained.
“The more people are being pinged and told to stay away from work, the harder it is for businesses including retail, to operate.
“Only this week, the managing director of Iceland stated that he is having to close some stores and have restricted opening at others because of staff shortage – something they never had to contend with through the depths of lockdown.
“We should also bear in mind, that with Covid cases rising daily, there is a real possibility that we may be blighted with further lockdowns.”
Retail Business mentor Ami Rabheru agreed.
“The biggest threat I see facing retail businesses going into the golden quarter is the ‘pingdemic’,” she said.
“If staff of small businesses are being asked to isolate by NHS they have to shut down their bricks and mortar shops or reduce hours for that period of time due to staff shortages which will inevitably hurt their recovery for what is the biggest time of the year for most retail businesses.
“So I think that businesses should spend time and effort on building a better customer journey and experiences between the two channels whilst keeping the customer at the heart of their businesses to move forward with the new normal of retail.”
While there have been concerns that a Shop Out to Help Out initiative could cause a surge in positive Covid cases, Cook argued that we are now in a world where a high proportion of the population has been vaccinated.
He stated that unlike the Eat out To Help Out scheme, a retail version wouldn’t be encouraging people to gather together indoors.
“Shopping is a sociable activity but realistically is a more solitary or selective social activity,” he said.
When originally proposed, the Shop Out to Help Out was meant to target smaller and independent retailer rather than the larger chains. Refundable owner Lee Plaister said in a statement that “independent retailers have had a very challenging year and it’s crucial that the government steps up to assist the recovery”.
However, there are concerns that if implemented, Brits would flock to high street staples instead of local, independent stores.
Colin Munro, managing director of fintech firm Miconex, said: “Both small local shops and larger chains have their place on the high street, and the best initiatives are those that encourage all businesses to work together for the benefit of the community, building vibrant, attractive high streets for the future.”
“A customer may visit the high street for the large chain, but they may then also visit the independent book store and coffee shop.
“Customers want choice in how and where they spend, and any Shop Out To Help Out initiative will be more successful if it takes account of this.”