After months of lockdown shopping in shops could be back in fashion, but they still need help, says TERRY MURDEN
Napoleon once famously described the British as a nation of shopkeepers, though the little emperor did not foresee the rise of the internet and its devastating effects on the high streets of the kingdom. Our attachment to shopping, however, remains undimmed. Online sales continue to soar, and there is new evidence that we may even be falling back in love with a trip to the shops.
With so many retailers collapsing and shops closing it comes as something of a pleasant jolt to discover that 17,000 local high street stores could open across the UK in the next 12 months as shoppers adapt to a post-lockdown world by ‘looking local’.
In a report published today, Retail Unlocked, Barclays Corporate Banking reveals that consumers have returned to physical stores with confidence since restrictions began to ease and 42% say that it is their favourite way to shop.
While the focus of this report is on neighbourhoods stores, it will spread some joy across the retail sector and is good timing for the toy store Hamley’s which this week wheeled out some happy, smiley people to promote its imminent arrival at the new St James Quarter, a £1 billion shopping and leisure ‘experience’ that has been fairly busy since opening a month ago.
Those behind the development have been keeping fingers firmly crossed as they battle the twin forces of online shopping and the Covid pandemic, the former being exacerbated by the latter. It has led to some lowering of rent expectations and focused minds on ensuring it is more than just a shopping mall. The opening of the Bonnie & Wild food hall has created an extra reason to visit, and extended the centre’s opening hours. But stores themselves are re-thinking how they can draw customers to bricks and mortar shops.
According to the Barclays report three in ten (29%) retailers are looking to entice more people back to physical stores by laying on experiences such as concerts and exhibitions.
Fundamentally, some are getting to grips with the challenges of modern retailing. Next, which has been one of the more successful at combining online and physical sales, is providing a lead. Next’s online customers collected nearly half of their orders from stores and more than 80% of returns went back to a physical store rather than in the post. To make sure staff are kept busy, Next is now experimenting with store staff handling some work that would normally go through a contact centre. As Russ Mould at financial platform AJ Bell notes, “that’s a clever move and keeps the business running efficiently”.
John Lewis has invested in its Edinburgh store (pic: Terry Murden)
Furthermore, Next’s physical store sales have seen only a 6% dip in the second quarter compared with 2019. That’s an encouraging result that shows there is still an appetite for hitting the streets despite a year of being conditioned to shop by laptop.
John Lewis’s Edinburgh store is back in full swing following a huge investment and reconfiguration, representing a huge vote of confidence by a company that has closed stores elsewhere. It shows how easy it is for things to go wrong. But with new brands nestling among familiar names in St James, there are reasons to be optimistic. Aberdeen, which was one of those to lose its John Lewis store, and Glasgow, which continues to pursue a revival of Sauchiehall Street, will be looking for their own catalysts to kickstart bricks and mortar shopping.
Even the Scottish Retail Consortium, whose dire data has been trotted out with fear-inducing monotony since before the crisis, is encouraged by signs of a return to pre-pandemic levels of trading. According to Barclays, since re-opening, over half (52%) of retailers are seeing an increase in the average spend of customers, with average purchases up 9% on pre-pandemic levels.
There is some way to go and work to do. Princes Street is taking a hammering from the exodus of stores like Next and Zara which been lured to St James. Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Debenhams, TopShop and Jenners are among those which have shut and whose units are becoming neglected and defaced with graffiti.
There is some hope in the shape of the striding man – Johnnie Walker – whose ‘visitor experience is due to inject new purpose into the west end of Scotland’s longest shopping street.
The collection of bars, restaurants, meeting places and a retail outlet that will occupy the former Binns (lately Frasers) department store is just what this part of the city needs. I hear that it is due to open in September, a year late because of the pandemic, but just in time (hopefully) for the end of restrictions and the start of the Christmas and New Year season.
Coming soon: Johnnie Walker Princes Street (pic: Terry Murden)
Importantly, the Diageo-backed facility will help stimulate activity in the area so that St James’ long fuse from the east end will set off a few sparks in the west.
It’s notable that the revival of physical retail, if we can think of it as a sustainable trend, has been private sector led. There has been no shortage of hand-wringing committees, consultative meetings and partnership engagements, which have produced little more than thick documents promising that “something must be done”.
In the end it has been the under pressure, but more enlightened shop owners who have dug deep to find a way to make physical retail work, empowered by technology such as the loyalty card and cash back systems operated by Miconex and Swipii, both based in Scotland.
These businesses should expect the government and local authorities to do their bit by tackling obstacles to growth. These include a no longer fit for purpose business rates system, punitive parking charges, restrictions on the use of buildings, and so on. A little more ‘can do’ from the public sector would give us more reason to feel confident about the future of the high street.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business