Saving Britain’s High Streets
15th November 2011
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Retail guru Mary Portas’ report into the declining high street is due this month. Will she present the solutions to halt the decline or will the deluge of emptying shops on our high streets continue to grow?


High streets are a part of our national identity and it would be a sad day if our towns came to resemble the American model in which the small independent shops that made us, ‘a nation of shopkeepers,’ are replaced by online and out of town megaplexes.


I’ve worked with thousands of local shops and companies, helping them to make their businesses as successful as possible, but the first thing I always say to them is, ‘As a business owner, you are 100% responsible for what happens to your business.’ I don’t want this statement to be taken as too harsh, but it’s easy for the grocery store owner to blame the new Sainsbury’s Express for their demise. My message to high street store owners is to think differently, change the attitude, get out of the rut, and accept responsibility. There’s no such thing as victims – only volunteers.


If there are not enough customers coming into a shop then it’s the job of the shop owners to do something different by finding a way to make themselves interesting, enticing and relevant to local people. They must market themselves. Properly.


For instance, most High Street businesses have no system in place to build and nurture a database of their customers and potential customers – and most of those that do have a database never use it. Think about it – when did you ever hear from a local shop?


Our small retailers must find creative ways to retain contact with their customers. Email, text and social media are all powerful tools that most simply don’t utilise. With a database, a  shop owner can keep in touch with their customers and communicate with them – giving them reasons and reminders to come back and spend. Best of all, most of the communication is free – but hardly any High Street retailers do it, because they don’t have a database.


Local shop owners can position their business as one of the best by shouting about accreditations, certificates and showing off all the great testimonials from customers (creating some ‘local celebrities,’ in the process, which can work wonders for a business). Word of mouth is still a powerful force and creating local ambassadors for a shop can transform its fortunes. Involving customers like this strengthens relationships hugely and has a direct impact on level of spend – and profits. But most businesses do nothing in this arena. It’s almost criminal.


And don’t get me started on service. I know some local shops are brilliant but lots aren’t. Too often they’re surly, slow and unwelcoming – and so give away probably their greatest advantage over the big supermarkets.


I commissioned a nationwide survey earlier this year in which a majority of respondents said that the high street was a key part of their local community and over 60% even said that they were willing to boycott supermarkets to help save their high street. The reality of course is different but what is obvious is that there is general support and affection for the high street amongst the British public. Businesses have to tap into that – and if they collaborate and work together, like they have in Ilkley in Yorkshire for instance, then they can make real progress.


But we still have a problem. Whilst it’s true that individual retailers taking responsibility for the fate of their business is critical, the fact remains that central government and local councils can do much more to promote a fertile environment in which the high street can grow and flourish.


I speak with hundreds of local businesses every month – many of them High Street retailers -  and the vast majority are failing to embrace the twenty-first century business basics that have the power to dramatically change their fortunes. What the government could be doing more of is providing advice and access to these practical steps that businesses can implement for success.


There are countless free tools out there, especially on the internet, that most retailers are failing to make use of. The next time the Prime Minister makes a speech on business, I challenge him to talk about Google Places, which is free, takes 10 minutes to register and literally puts local businesses on the front page of Google every day. It’s been around for over 3 years yet over 80% of UK businesses are not taking advantage of it. Bonkers.


Or he could point out that Pay-per-Click advertising is a key tool for any high street business in a niche sector yet the proportion using it is tiny. Fact is there are people looking online today, within a shop’s catchment area, looking for exactly the service that they provide – but the local retailer doesn’t even appear on their screen because they’ve done nothing to embrace these new tools. The internet provides great opportunities for high street shops IF they can be bothered to take advantage of them.


I’m a big fan of Mary Portas – she’s  an exceptionally talented individual, and what she’ll have to provide is definitely NOT a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems faced by high streets up and down the country. There are different issues in different places and I’m sure she recognizes this.


But she can’t do it on her own. Now is the time for all retailers to stand up and be counted. To take responsibility. To recognize that the world is changing and to change with it. To accept that they have a really big say in the future of their shop – and the street that it’s on. To pull together, to work with each other and their local community.  To think differently and, where necessary do different things.

Written by Nigel Botterill

About the Author

Gill and Phil C

Member since: 9th July 2012

Hi, We are Phil and Gill Chappell. We own the Best of Henley-on-Thames. We live in Henley so would love to hear your views and opinions about all things Henley.

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