Why independent retailers may need a new voice to survive

April 2013

During the last week I’ve enjoyed presenting to a group of business people at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast event. My topic was ‘Why having a marketing strategy has never been more important’, and the reason I ultimately gave was that there is now such an overwhelming choice of marketing tools to use, that if you don’t have a strategy and plan in place then you can waste a whole lot of money doing a lot of things – perhaps the wrong things – and do them all badly. Or of course, do rather less things but ones which are fully aligned with the objectives from the strategy, and do them all properly. Simples.

I fleshed the topic out with some examples of great and innovative practice, and cited the example of an independent shoe shop called Meat Pack which had built up a strong following on its Facebook page, then encouraged these followers to download an app onto their smart phones. Using GPS, the app was able to recognise when a user went into one of their rival brand’s stores, with this then triggering a time and location-sensitive discount to tempt the person out of the rival brand’s store. But it gets better… The app then progressively penalises ditherers by starting its discount at 99% and reducing it by 1% for every second the person takes to get to the close-by Meat Pack store. So the quicker the person is ‘hijacked’ from a competitor, the bigger the discount. And the results are impressive: 600 customers hijacked in one week.

Where was the shoe shop? London’s Oxford Street perhaps? Manchester’s Trafford Centre? No, it’s in Guatemala City, Guatemala – perhaps, and arguably, not a country renowned for its legendary expertise in retail innovation.

This then got me thinking about the current state of the UK high street, and specifically the independent retailers, the majority of which are struggling to evolve in a fast-changing retail landscape. Of course some large national players have also failed to evolve, and you only have to look at recent casualties such as Blockbuster and HMV to see the reasons why. But national players have typically access to expertise within their own management ranks and the marketing agencies which support them, to continually evolve and fully embrace ever-changing digital opportunities. Of these, mobile technology is especially relevant, and in recent years there’s been a raft of innovations – e.g. allowing customers to scan QR codes on products to get more information about them online. And John Lewis’ and Argos’ click and collect efforts demonstrate a great and very simple way to get consumers into your store when they’ve purchased online (and perhaps then go on to buy something else when they’re in the store).

But back to independent retailers and who they might turn to for help, support, best practice and ideas. Well it should be their trade association ‘BIRA’ – British Independent Retailers Association – but, I’d suggest, that would be like turning to an antiquities expert when you were looking for guidance on modern art. And to give a flavour of just how out of touch BIRA is, here’s a quote from their CEO, Alan Hawkins, from January this year: “Retailing must be an easy art. Make sure that your shop is in a reasonable position and make it a destination store wherever it is. Ensure that you are up to date with latest trends in the market and that your shop is following the seasons, adjusted for any change in weather patterns. Embrace new ideas such as internet trading and social media if appropriate.  Offer properly presented sensibly priced merchandise sold by knowledgeable staff who are well trained and motivated. Bob’s your Uncle.” So internet trading and social media are ‘new ideas’ are they?! Really?! I’d have thought internet trading was a new idea about 20 years ago, and that social media has been relevant to retailers for at least 5 years. And ‘retailing must be an easy art’? I’m not sure that’s ever been the case, but it sure as hell isn’t an easy art in 2013 – unless of course you think it is because you haven’t heard of SEO (search engine optimisation), PPC (pay per click), Google Places (handy so folk know where your shop is…), QR codes, augmented reality, apps, click and collect technologies, affiliate marketing, free broadband in store, touch screens etc. etc. And “offer properly presented sensibly priced merchandise sold by knowledgeable staff who are well trained and motivated. Bob’s your Uncle.” So that simple in a digital age when 84% of the UK population has access to the internet? I despair.

I actually did some work for this organisation a few years back (ran some training courses for them) though at that time they were under the name of BSSA – British Shops and Stores Association. I must say that all the people I met and worked with were thoroughly decent, but their level of ignorance and naivety around all things digital was simply staggering.

This all rather matters to me on a personal level, because I started my career in retail some 38 years ago and before moving into more specific marketing roles as the years progressed. I love the high street and I actually think it still has a real future, but that future isn’t the one BIRA imagines where quaint little shoe shops can still chug along in the same way they did 40 years ago. In fact if BIRA want to get a sense of a high street for the future and talking of shoe shops, then they’d do well to read the detail on my example from Guatemala above. (Tip for BIRA: Google it.)

So come on BIRA; wake up to the real world and start giving your members some relevant guidance on how to survive, which is essentially around embracing digital innovation and integrating it into their bricks and mortar retail environments in ways which are relevant to, and enhance, the shopping experience of their customers. Because if you don’t then the high street of the future will not only have fewer shops, but most of those remaining will be owned and run by national players. And that would be sad…

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