Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics on Business Rates

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I started my high street retail career in the fine city of Oxford, so it’s a place that’s close to my heart.  It’s also a place where I first experienced the damage that can be done to an area by a local authority who not only takes its eye off the ball, they take the ball away and refuse to play nice with the local small business community at all.

We closed our last store where we had opened our first 20 years earlier, almost to the day, in Oxford.  It was a sad time for us, made ever more sad by a final tussle with the City Council who had refused us a change of use on the property so that we could finally sell the lease to the only people that wanted it – A Bureau de Change.  They finally relented hours before we were about to call the administrators in.

Not a great end to our Oxford experience, but one that had been marred over the previous 20 years by repeated mismanagement and lack of consideration for the high street.

From a dreadfully thought out one way system, to road works that took over a year to complete and decimated trade for years afterwards, to increasingly hiked, eye-watering parking charges, the city council couldn’t have more effectively shown my business, and many others, the door if they’d tried.

Eventually, after years of depleted useful footfall, and with a new shopping centre that we all knew was going to decimate the traditional retail areas in the city on the horizon, we finally took the hint and left.

Many other small stores and restaurants have followed suit since, and one of the more recent ones – Combibos Coffee – in Gloucester Green made their feelings clear in a newspaper article in the local press, where the owners levied the criticism that the city had “lost it’s sparkle”.

Read the original Oxford Mail Article Here

This chimed with me, not only because, as a jeweller, I think we once provided some of that sparkle, but also because as it mirrored my experience in dealing with the council a few years earlier.  My business had also applied for rates relief before we ultimately gave up on the city where we’d begun our high street adventure.  We were knocked back unceremoniously for our troubles.

The response to this article from the city council seemed to me to support my view, and that of many others in the local community, that they had not grasped the severity of problems in Oxford, particularly for smaller businesses, and were instead trying to wave away such criticism by making bland comments about supporting local businesses.

Moreover the councillor most closely concerned – Mary Clarkson – seemed to be suggesting the council were offering direct support for smaller businesses in the form of targeted business rates relief.

Read the Council’s Response

Intrigued by this claim I made a FOI request asking how many micro-businesses – nationally defined as operations employing 9 people or less – had the council given rates relief to outside of the normal concessions applied on a national basis as part of the new powers granted to local councils in the 2011 Localism Act.

The answer was virtually none.  The only rates relief given as a result of local initiatives came to approximately £40k and this was only to a group of businesses very narrowly defined by the council as operating as if they were charities.

The council made a subsequent claim to the local media that they had in fact given £31m of relief to businesses.  Closer examination of this claim revealed that they had included all the statutory government mandated relief schemes in that figure.  These included such things as transitional relief and charity relief.  As most of us will know, these are simple bolt on measures brought in by the government over many years, intended to reduce the business rates burden, instead of carrying out the root and branch review that everyone, including central government, knows is required.

My concern was that Oxford City Council, in attempting to obfuscate the fact that they have not provided any additional support, were undermining the argument that business rates do need a fundamental rethink.

I know that councils are cash-strapped by government cuts, so expecting them to provide support unaided is probably a tall order.  But in not making that point, and instead relying on empty cut and paste phrases, the council are missing an opportunity to engage with both the government and the business community on the issue.  I have to say that, for a Labour led city council, I find that doubly surprising and disappointing.

As the old truism goes, you can’t deal with a problem if you deny that there is one in the first place.

Unfortunately much of the local media have slightly missed this point and instead focussed on my criticism of the city as a “scruffy clone town”.  I think it’s arguable that it is, and that the reason for that is connected to the council’s apparent lack of support for smaller businesses that provide the diversity and distinctiveness that avoids towns and cities being described as such.  Their recent comments are really only a further indication of this.

I tried to correct this shift of focus in a radio interview I gave on Friday about the local press articles.  Sadly the council didn’t put anyone up to discuss the issue more fully, they will apparently be issuing a fuller statement in due course and I’m waiting with baited breath for that!  In the meantime, as you can hear in the interview they are relying on their claim to support local businesses using the same ‘cut and paste’ answers I accused them of in my letter.

Listen to the interview here

For those who are interested I’ve added the full text of my open letter below. At the time of writing I’ve received no response from the council or Councillor Clarkson.


Councillor Mary Clarkson
Oxford City Council

18 August 2018

Dear Councillor Clarkson

I read with interest your comments in the Oxford Mail some weeks ago in an article entitled ‘Council hits back at coffee shop claims Oxford has ‘lost its sparkle’ (Oxford Mail 14th June 2018).  This was in response to claims by a local coffee bar, Combibos Coffee, and some other small businesses in the city that Oxford had lost its appeal to consumers and that the council was not supportive towards smaller businesses, specifically those classed nationally as ‘micro businesses’ employing 9 people or less.

In the article you rebuffed claims that the council had not done enough to support such businesses in the city.  Amongst a number of rather glib statements focussing on broad indicators such as footfall and changes to the high street you made the following statement :

“Business rates are set by central government; the city council provides business rate relief to many small businesses”

Whilst I’d not dispute that business rates are indeed set by central government, the second part of your claim surprised me.  It suggested that the city council has provided specific relief to smaller businesses in Oxford over and above those it is mandated to provide by central government.  I assumed you were referring to powers available to local councils under Localism Act 2011 that gave them the discretion to apply rates relief where required.

As a former trader in the city of over 20 years standing, I’d applied myself to the council for help on business rates around 2013 when my store in Cornmarket was suffering as a result of many factors in the city that were arguably caused by the city council.  My business was refused support out of hand at the time, so I was intrigued to find out what help you may have provided to others in a similar situation as you appeared to be claiming in the Oxford Mail.

As well as being a retailer myself, I’m also a commentator and journalist on retail matters in the national and business press.  Many of the problems I highlighted to the council 5 years ago were repeated by Combibos Coffee in the Oxford Mail article you responded to. These included poor management of shared public spaces, high parking charges, lack of easy access to the city centre and a disproportionate focus on larger chain stores in the city centre.

The latter problem has now been massively compounded by the opening of the Westgate Centre which itself is only partially let and has largely cannibalised traders from elsewhere in the city, leaving large holes in the main trading streets.  There appear to have been no contingency plans laid to deal with the devastating effects of this development on other businesses in the city, especially smaller operators, not least in the Covered Market which is losing ground and tenants faster than even the most pessimistic observers predicted.

The response from the council has been one of apparent lack of concern and in many cases an evident lack of understanding of how the commercial property market operates.  Your colleague and former leader Bob Price was regularly heard to claim that more empty shops would lead to a reduction in rental values.  Sadly that is not the case for reasons too complicated to detail here.  It’s a shame that he, and it appears you, are not better informed on such matters.

As a result of your claims in The Oxford Mail, I made a FOI request asking for details of how the city council had provided business rates relief to “many small businesses”.  The response to that request and subsequent clarification you provided to the Oxford Mail demonstrates that little has changed in the council’s approach since my days as a city trader.

Although the city council apparently have no records of how many businesses apply for discretionary relief, you were able to confirm that none had been offered such relief in the preceding 2 years.  I was told that micro businesses “would not normally qualify for Discretionary Relief in the Oxford City Area”.  So the facts seem to run contrary to your claims.

You do apparently offer some relief, but only to a very narrowly defined group of businesses which “act like a charity, but do not have charitable status”.  Even then, you have only provided this to an average of 8 businesses a year and currently provide it to 6.  I doubt that would fit any reasonable definition of “many small businesses” as you have claimed.  The only other form of locally administered relief is hardship relief, for businesses in temporary difficulties.  According to your own figures you haven’t provided this to anyone.  Again, hardly a figure anyone would reasonably describe as “many”.

Your further response to the Oxford Mail did however provide a long list of other business rates rebates and discounts.  These included Mandatory (Charitable) Relief, Small Business Rate Relief, Transitional Relief, Empty Property Relief, Rural Relief, Public House Relief, Supporting Small Business, Local Discretionary Revaluation Relief and Local Newspaper Relief.

To the uninitiated this sounds like an impressive list, but as I assume you know, these are all government mandated schemes imposed and essentially funded by central government.  None of them are initiatives created or provided by Oxford City Council as you implied in the article on 14th June.  The council has no choice, no say, and does not directly contribute financially in the application of these rebates.  These are not optional or locally created schemes and so it’s misleading and disingenuous for the council to claim credit for them.

Contrary to your claims, essentially no direct support exists for small local businesses in Oxford similar to Combibos Coffee to offset the unique problems in the city centre, many of which have been created by your administration.  It follows then that your comments in the newspaper and the assertions your department have made since are at best confused and at worst factually incorrect and misleading.

I am aware from my own experience that the council takes the view that discretionary support should only be offered when it returns a direct benefit to the city and I can to some extent understand that.  I also understand that all local authorities are under immense financial pressure as a result of central government cuts, and very few if any have given rates relief on a purely discretionary basis.  But ignoring this fact and the associated pressures on local businesses and making misleading claims about local business rates concessions does not properly highlight this plight.  Neither does it help the national debate on the inequities of the business rates system.

The underuse of discretionary powers also overlooks the value of the amenity provided by such businesses, not to mention the employment and direct contributions they make in the form of local taxation prior to running into such difficulties.  I would also assert that there is a responsibility on you as a council, especially an allegedly socialist led council, to ensure that smaller businesses who are simply looking to make a reasonable living are able to do so, especially when they are providing valuable employment to people in the city.  Yes they are still private enterprises, but their continued success has many knock-on benefits for the city.

These are usually owner-operated outlets working hard against ever diminishing odds to simply stay afloat.  They are not in the same league as the large well-financed corporate operations your council seems to favour, particularly those likely to be attracted to the new shopping centre, itself a development instigated and operated by large wealthy conglomerates.

It’s also noteworthy that, unlike many other councils considering such developments within their purview, you did not impose any requirements on the developers to provide smaller, subsidised units for independent operators other than the usual ubiquitous RMUs.  But considering you didn’t deem it worthy of ensuring the housing element of the development would be affordable for key workers, I suppose this is hardly surprising.

I have to say that I agree with the original assertion by Combibos Coffee that Oxford has “lost its sparkle”.  Having traded in the city since the early 90s I’ve seen it go from a vibrant, destination location to a scruffy, poorly managed, clone town, trading on its past glories.  Over the past 10 years it’s essentially been allowed to go feral by a council who seems to have no concept of how an historic city should be nurtured, shaped and supported.

I was very sad to have to close both my stores in the Oxford after 20 years commitment to the city and it saddens me even more to see other small businesses being forced out in the same way.  It’s little wonder that so many of them are collapsing, if your response to such events is careless platitudes and specious claims.

It’s a truism that you have to recognise there is a problem before you can find the solution.  That solution is not issuing blanket media statements with claims that do not bear closer scrutiny.  So I would ask that you at least be honest with the business community and the wider public and admit that as a council you have no schemes in place that support small local enterprise and perhaps consider setting some up.

Oxford could be a special place again given the right local political will, but from your repeated cut and paste answers it seems that will is not there.  Neither is there any tangible support for struggling small businesses, despite your claims to the contrary.

I’m happy to discuss these matters in more detail if you think that would be useful.  In any event I look forward to hearing your thoughts and seeing an honest clarification of the position of the council on discretionary business rates relief in the near future.

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Westgate Oxford – First Impressions of a New Shopping Wonderland

 

 

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The extension to the Westgate centre in Oxford has been a long time coming.  I traded in the city centre from 1994 onwards and even then I remember it was a hot topic of discussion in the retail ranks.

There have been several false starts since then.  In 2002 plans to extend the centre were blocked by the then secretary of state for being out of keeping with the city centre architecture.  A view I had some sympathy with considering the heritage of Oxford.

Then in 2008 plans to revamp the Westgate were once again shelved due to the financial crisis, even though a major remodelling of Bonn Square just outside the centre had already been completed, including the unpopular removal of several ancient and well loved trees.

For a while it seems like the whole idea had gone away, and by the end of the last decade it was apparent to most Oxford traders that the time for such a development had come and gone.  The advent of the internet, softening consumer confidence, falling footfall in town centres and of course an impending Brexit all appeared to render moot the idea of expanding the retail offer in Oxford.

Parking

There were (and still are) many other infrastructure issues that drag down trade in Oxford, not least the ridiculously high parking charges, poor travel access into the city centre and a culture of almost perpetual roadworks in the area courtesy of the county council.  None of these issues have really been addressed, with the exception of the parking charges which ironically were reduced by the council in order to fall in line with the more reasonable charges being levied in the new centre car park.

After years of ignored complaints to the council from existing retailers about the damage being done to trade and the image of the city by fleecing car driving consumers, they were finally handed a fait accompli by the developers.  Too late for many long gone businesses (my own included) and also a direct contradiction to the council’s stated aims to improve the appalling air quality in the city with an emissions free zone.  Another example of civic schizophrenia from a council who can’t decide if they love or hate local businesses.

In the meantime, the Westgate fell under something of a planning blight of its own making, as units fell empty while plans bubbled under for the site to be demolished at some point in the near or distant future.

Late

In 2014 the project was given the kiss of life once again when an alliance between the Crown Estates and Land Securities committed to transforming the old centre into the kind of retail experience that had come to be expected in major cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham.  But like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland – a story born in Oxford and the main theme of the Westgate opening events – many thought it had all come a little too late.  Still, down the rabbit hole we went.


the so-called ‘lantern’ at the top is a positive bolt-on, looking like it’s made up from discarded double glazing panels lit by a 40 watt bulb


This was intended to be an extension, but it pretty soon became clear that little of the original building would remain or at least be visible.  A new John Lewis store would anchor the project and the main multi-storey car park would be demolished to make way and new subterranean parking structure constructed.

So began 2 years of building works, which admittedly caused less disruption than I expected, apart from the long and convoluted walk from the temporary car park into what remained of the city centre.

The new Westgate finally flung open its metaphorical doors (it’s entirely open at both ends) to the public on Tuesday 24th October.  I took a look around that afternoon after some of the initial hoopla had died down.

The main entrance from the latterly refurbished Bonn Square was impressive from a distance.  Walking up Queen Street the façade dominates the skyline, but seems a bit of a mish-mash architecturally.  If the hole in the front facia was a design afterthought, the so-called ‘lantern’ at the top is a positive bolt-on, looking like it’s made up from discarded double glazing panels lit by a 40 watt bulb.  Perhaps the obligatory blue LED lighting will come later.

An Accident Waiting to Happen

The area immediately outside the entrance is a clearly unfinished mess of tarmac and paving slabs which I was surprised to find led seamlessly from the concourse across the road to the square.  I say ‘road’ because that’s exactly what it is.  A still functioning thoroughfare allowing buses to pass pick their way through the crowds thronging outside the centre.

20171024_184207There’s no warning that the buses are coming save for the poor bus drivers franticly beeping his horn as surprised shoppers hop out of the way.  The seamless nature of the paving gives no clue or cue to the visitor that this is still a functioning road.  Even I forgot and realised I’d just walked straight out into the path of a bus, and I’ve been in that area hundreds of times.

It’s an accident waiting to happen, and unless something is done soon, we won’t have to wait long.  Already there’s much talk in the local press about it, with general impression being given that it was deliberately left in this state so that the local council could prove a point to Chris Grayling who refused permission to fully pedestrianise the area.  Let’s hope that point isn’t made by the serious injury or death of an unwitting visitor!

I also seriously doubt that what is essentially a pavement is going to be able to withstand several tons of bus driving over it numerous times a day.  It won’t be long before the cracks start to appear and this whole daft scenario unravels.  Let’s hope some remedial safety measures are taken soon.  Paving slabs can be replaced, people can’t.

Next I turned into the centre proper and was struck by just how narrow the entrance is.  This is a hangover from the original dimensions of the old centre, but with the full height shop fronts it now seems claustrophobic.  This may change when more of the shop fronts are open.  As it is now well over half of them are still boarded up.

Half Open

This is a theme that repeats as you travel around the centre, as only 60 or so of the 125 units are currently open for business.  The rest are either empty or being fitted out.  We don’t know the exact numbers as yet, although I heard on the grapevine that at least 20% of the centre remains un-let.  Presumably many brands are waiting to see how the land lies before committing themselves.  We’re promised that another 30 stores will be open by Christmas, but that still leaves 35 or so dark.

 

 

 

The centre manager and the developers have tried to put a brave spin on this, claiming that it’s not unusual to have so many voids by the opening day.  To anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of previous centre openings this is plainly whistling in the dark.  I’ve never heard of a centre with so many empty or hoarded stores on launch day.  It remains to be seen how long that situation lasts.


There’s none of your polished granite here, it’s all slabs and drainage panels, much of which looks like it’s already seen it’s fair share of inclement weather


As you leave the long entrance corridor, past an alcove that appears to be the only customer seating area in the whole place, you pop out into the main area.  This is a cavernous hall with the obligatory glass roof, so beloved of mall designers for the past decade, none the less impressive all the same.

The area feels quite cold and soulless though.  Not helped by the grey utilitarian concrete nature of the floor finishes.  There’s none of your polished granite here, it’s all slabs and drainage panels, much of which looks like it’s already seen it’s fair share of inclement weather probably before the roof was fully installed.  Given that the end of this aircraft hangar-like space is fully open at one end, leaving a gap between the main concourse and the entrance to John Lewis, you can perhaps see why the floor looks just like any other pavement.  There are going to be a lot of wet shoes and maybe even snow flurries in here at some point.  I’m not an architect, but I suspect there’s going to be something of the wind-tunnel about this place come the next bout of inclement weather.

Strange Land

Overall it seemed quite drab, not helped by the large empty spaces visible in the basement area below, and of course more dead-eyed shop hoardings.  Yes they were all tastefully decorated with the ever present and somewhat cheesy Alice in Wonderland theme, but they were still empty spaces.  And just in case you weren’t aware that Alice was born in Oxford and the writer of her fantastical adventures was on Oxford Don, the PR company responsible for the launch didn’t lose any opportunity to remind you.  It certainly felt like I was disappearing into a strange land after consuming some kind of hallucinogenic potion.  A shame that there appeared nowhere for visitors to sit down in the mall, not even a giant mushroom.


The phrase “It’ll be nice when it’s finished” just kept knocking on the door of my brain begging to come in.


It was quite difficult to see where the old centre ended and the new one began, but perhaps that was an achievement.  The only cue was the entrance to the original Sainsbury’s store which didn’t look like it had moved from it’s previous location.  It was somewhat tucked away down a side alley, rather like the poor relation that no one wants to talk to at the posh party.

But to be fair, the main shopping area was reasonably impressive.  Nothing particularly new now, but it fulfilled its function well enough.  The usual suspect brands are all there, many of which have decamped from other places in Oxford, leaving behind them empty units like rotten teeth littering the now less well travelled thoroughfares.  But there was really nothing to see that I hadn’t seen dozens of times before.  Perhaps it’ll be more impressive when it’s finished, whenever that is.

Incomplete

And that really seems to be an indefinable point.  The centre is clearly not complete yet, and comments I’ve heard on the grapevine from contractors suggest that work may continue for anything up to 2 months. That takes us dangerously close to Christmas.

 

 

 

This lack of completion was evident throughout the development, with uneven floor surfaces, missing or filthy glazing panels, faulty lifts and escalators and empty planters with pot plants sitting forlornly inside waiting for their forever homes.  The phrase “It’ll be nice when it’s finished” just kept knocking on the door of my brain begging to come in.


Whomever the contractors were need a series kick up the backside


I’ve seen a few new centre openings, and opened my own stores in two of them, namely Bluewater in Kent and The New Bullring in Birmingham.  Both of these centres were to all intents and purposes complete on opening day.  My own store in Birmingham wasn’t and I can still hear the sound of the delivery manager screaming down the phone at me at 2am the morning before launch day asking me why.  It wasn’t actually our fault on that occasion, it was our lousy (yet very expensive) contractors, but I still bore the brunt of the ire.

I suspect something similar in the case of the Westgate.  Whomever the contractors were need a series kick up the backside, and I imagine are already deep into penalty clause money.  If not that might in itself be an answer as to why it’s not finished.  Again, I’ve heard rumours that the contractors tried to push back the opening day subject to the approval of the retailers, but they weren’t having any of it, and with rent free periods ticking and all the other considerations of opening a new store I don’t blame them.

I know that the whole centre was also developed by 3 separate architects.  I’m not sure if that also meant 3 sets of main contractors, but if so that also sounds like a recipe for disaster, the proof of which may well be the pudding that the Westgate is in the middle of right now.

Even relatively fundamental things for a modern shopping centre appeared to be missing.  In a city like Oxford, famed for its poor 4G coverage, Wi-Fi is a must.  Not only was this absent from the mall areas, there also appeared to be connectivity problems in the stores themselves.  Accessorize had no data connections at all and had to rely on paper vouchers to complete card transactions.  I’m not sure if this was a problem local to the store or another snag with the centre itself (the staff didn’t seem to know either), but in these days of contactless cards and pay by mobile, taking 10 minutes to complete a sale on paper just isn’t acceptable.

Of course these issues are transient and will eventually be fixed, but it doesn’t give a great first impression of the new centre, nor of the professionalism of those behind it , and as we all know, in retail first impressions tend to stick.

Some Positives

Enough of the negative stuff though, there are some positives!  The fairly run-of-the-mill lower floors belied the treasure that awaited on the rooftop terrace.  With stunning views of the iconic medieval architecture that makes up the Oxford skyline the best is left for last.

This is where the main eateries and restaurants are located and it’s going to be a summer treat to spend some time there.  Although I suspect it’ll be more challenging for the rest of the year.  Even though the temperature was fairly mild at ground level on opening day, it was still pretty chilly on the rather more breezy rooftop.


stunning views of the iconic medieval architecture that makes up the Oxford skyline


Even so, the views can presumably still be enjoyed from inside the restaurants.  I haven’t checked that out yet as very few of them were actually open (a theme I was becoming used to) and those that were had menus that made my eyes water if not my mouth.

The prices are pretty much as sky high as the location, but that will of course be understandable.  These units will not come cheap and as we all know the VOA won’t be far behind with their council tax assessment.  They’re going to have shift a lot of £20 minimum main courses to cover those overheads.

I joined many others, milling about the terraced areas, checking out the views, but as it was getting dark I headed back down, past the camera crews reporting for local news, the non-functional escalators and the closed cinema, yet another part of the Westgate promise still unfulfilled.

I had another engagement elsewhere so had no time to check out the delights of the John Lewis store.  I hate to say if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all, but it had that look about it.  Maybe next time.

Conclusions

Overall it’s very difficult to get a grip on what the new centre will eventually be like when it’s finished and more fully open.  The Westgate is neither an indoor, nor an outdoor mall and the stores and brands within are obviously setting out to raise the game in Oxford, even though I think that could have been done without the need to blow £440m on a development like this.  It all felt rather unaccomplished and unremarkable.  Maybe it’s the jaded eye of someone who sees behind the facades of these places, maybe it’s the memories of my own frantic forays into the mall culture, I’m not sure.  But I was left with a feeling of something unresolved and lacking that essential spark I saw in places like Bluewater so many years ago.  That may not be Westgate’s fault, even that Kentish behemoth has lost it’s shine now and I really think the age of the me-too shopping mall is coming to an end.  The Westgate and it’s ilk may just be a footnote in that journey.

Certainly it’s half open, half closed beginnings are rather apt considering it’s half in/half out positioning within the Oxford city shopping canon and only time will tell how it finally sits with local consumers and those coming from further afield.  I think the latter category may well struggle to get into the city if the predictions of a tripling of shopping visits to 15 or 16 million a year are to materialise. and I’ve written elsewhere about the likely traffic and parking chaos that’s probably going to ensue.

Yes the centre has made some effort to move people towards other modes of transport, but with the promised 1000 extra cycle racks not yet materialising and the kamikaze nature of the current bus route, it seems those elements are just as much lacking in full formation as the rest of the centre.

The excitement around the new mall also overshadows what I think will be some seriously negative impacts on the rest of the city, not least the number of empty units that are already starting to appear.  The shift in focus of the city towards the John Lewis area is also going to be to the disadvantage of existing department stores in the city, not least the likes of Debenhams and the long standing independent Boswells.  One rather surprising development is the appearance of the first charity store in Cornmarket street, one of the most highly sought after and prime locations in the city, or at least it was.

 

 

 


Only time will prove if some nice views and yet another cavernous retail cathedral will be enough to attract both shoppers and new brands to the city, and time is one thing that an historic site like Oxford has in abundance.


I think that ultimately when the novelty wears off, the overall experience will be pretty unremarkable, with the obvious exception of the roof terrace.  And that’s where I think the centre will win out, especially once the cinema and all the restaurants are open. That’s likely to be a real boost to the night-time economy as getting into town and parking will be much easier than during the busier times during the day.

Wait and See

Until the centre is fully complete and function it’s of course impossible to really know how well it’ll do.  I think the amount of competition in the area, both locally and a bit further afield in places such as Milton Keynes, Reading, the newly expanded Bicester Village and even Westfield London may well be a deciding factor if the predicted transport and parking problems in Oxford become reality.  Those really are the issues that should have been sorted a long time before the first brick was laid in the new Westgate, that would have helped not only the new centre but the city as a whole.

It remains to be seen if these problems will continue to dog the city’s retail and leisure offer, but it’s certain that the roof terrace area in the new centre will be a big draw for visitors and shoppers alike.  Ironically it’s the views that are the best bit of the new Westgate and arguably they’re nothing much to do with the centre itself.  In fact some would say that the inconsistent architecture of a shopping centre plonked in the middle of such splendour actually detracts from the skyline of the city of dreaming spires.  But then again those admiring the view from the Westgate itself won’t really care about that.

There’s no doubt that the new modern centre is a vast improvement on what it replaces, but it’s not enough just be new.  Every shopping mall was new once.  Only time will prove if some nice views and yet another cavernous retail cathedral will be enough to attract both shoppers and new brands to the city, and time is one thing that an historic site like Oxford has in abundance.

With the centre now finally up and running, albeit with a bit of a limp, retailers and managers will be working hard to make it a success and the city will have to come to terms with it’s newest addition.  As Alice herself says as she walks with the lobster through Wonderland, “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then”

Are Small Retailers Becoming an Endangered Species?

Cecil_the_lion_in__3388298bThe illegal killing of Cecil the lion has generated many column inches about the protection of endangered species. In an admittedly tangential intellectual leap, I’ve been wondering if we should be adding another dying breed to the danger list – that of the independent retailer.

It seems that just like many animal populations in the wild, retailers who colonise once abandoned areas and make them fruitful again, tend to attract the unwanted attention of bigger game looking for an easy kill.

Currently the country’s richest landowner, the Duke of Westminster is planning to bulldoze a chunk of the Pimlico Road, regardless of the fact that he’ll be rolling the heavy machinery over a raft of long established and successful independent stores.

Unfortunately for them, it’s not enough that the property is earning more than it’s keep and probably appreciating faster than Tracy Emin’s unwashed bed socks. The assets must be sweated, even though they’re already soaked in years of perspiration, squeezed from the brows of those who’s businesses trade from them.

Passport to Pimlico

The Pimlico Road has become a magnet for interior designers and anyone looking for something a little out of the ordinary. The antithesis of what chain stores provide, by their very nature. Yet buoyed, no doubt, by the increased footfall these niche stores have inspired, Grosvenor’s plans are reportedly to develop gargantuan retail units that they believe will be more attractive to larger international brands.


Developers now fish in a gene pool that is becoming progressively more shallow, producing a retail mono-culture where they no longer understand or apparently care about the requirements for smaller operators, except as pop-ups of convenience or a bit of garnish to their main offer, usually in the form of RMUs.


And this isn’t an isolated case. We’ve seen similar changes in character to destinations such as Burlington Arcade, Spitalfeilds and Covent Garden. In central London, galleries in Cork Street and Dover Street have been lost, and even bespoke menswear stores and tailor’s workshops that gave streets like Savile Row their iconic status around the world have been ground under the developer’s heel. While London may be the vanguard for these culls at the moment, it’s a strategy that’s starting to gain ground, literally, around the whole of the UK.

When I entered the high street over 20 years ago, I remember even the most hard nosed property managers being supportive of smaller operators. Not only did they appreciate your staying power, but they saw your business as providing that extra spark and diversity that kept their developments attractive to both consumers and prospective tenants.

Retail SSI

There now seems only to be a headlong pitch towards bigger, brasher and more expensive spaces with scant regard for anything a smaller retailer, let alone a start-up, could occupy. New malls for example now rarely offer spaces small or affordable enough for indies to even contemplate.

Developers now fish in a gene pool that is becoming progressively more shallow, producing a retail mono-culture where they no longer understand or apparently care about the requirements for smaller operators, except as pop-ups of convenience or a bit of garnish to their main offer, usually in the form of RMUs.

protected-species-sign-on-gate-postSo where does that leave the small retailer of the future? If every time a secondary or tertiary location is popularised that’s taken as a cue to erase their existence, where will innovation and verve come from on the high street? Certainly not from the ‘me too’ generation of international brands, over-hyped and over here, rolling out virtually the same products and service models as every other chain store.

Perhaps in the same way that sites of special scientific interest are protected by government statute, we should have sites of special retail interest, where smaller businesses can be shielded from the worst excesses of re-development.And this isn’t just starry eyed idealism. Without space for new entrants into the retail landscape, where will our chain stores and national retailers of the future come from? We can’t expect every successful online business to have a yen for a more physical presence.

In the same way that vulnerable animals need to be protected from the sophisticated firepower of modern hunters, business innovation needs space to breed and expand, outside of what is rapidly becoming a very one sided fight.

Most conservationists will tell you that habitat erosion is one of the largest causes of extinction events. Maybe the world of retail property management also needs to learn that lesson before it’s too late.

This article was also published as one of my regular columns for Retail Week Magazine

The Undercover Analyst – Luxuriating In Manchester

main logo blueAs part of a project with retail analytics experts ShopperTrak, I’m continuing my look at the retail landscape in areas around the UK and sharing some insights through regular blog posts.  Taking a broad cross section of market sectors and visiting unnamed stores, I comment on how they fare on specific operational areas I and ShopperTrak regard as being key to a successful and customer responsive store.  I’m looking for good and bad practices, innovative ideas and exemplars for all of us to either follow or avoid in our own businesses.  This time I’ve been looking at high end luxury stores in the centre of Manchester.

One could define luxury as any product that isn’t an essential. In that sense anything other than one pair of shoes at a time would be seen as excessive, unless of course you’re a centipede. But of course we all buy things we want rather than need, and in that sense we all indulge in luxury to some extent.

Having run a chain of jewellery stores for the past 20 years, it seemed like a natural step for me to look at this sector for the next of my occasional blogs in association with ShopperTrak, and for this outing I chose the city centre in Manchester on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Since the horrendous bombing of 1996 which wiped out nearly a third of its retail space, there has been a positive renaissance of retail offer in the city. Luxury stores are very well represented and I found a good range of mid to high end opulence to choose from. I went to three stores. Two within what has become a luxury enclave within the mainstream shopping locale, and one in the more business orientated sector.

I think I can speak with some authority on how luxury shopping should be done. It’s not really a complicated proposition. You provide a cosseting but inspiring atmosphere and you have on hand a team of well trained and well-presented staff that have all mastered the art of engaging with customers without pestering them. The final ingredient is to have a good range of aspirational products at the right price. It’s pretty much like any other retail proposition except maybe the price issue isn’t quite such an imperative.

Quick off the Mark

The first store I visited was that of an iconic British brand. Stock was principally aimed at women with what appeared to be an afterthought nod towards menswear.

Of late this company has been struggling somewhat which might be why the sales staff seemed so eager to see me. I was the only person in the shop at the time, and as a result, I was approached by 3 sales advisers inside 5 minutes. They were well presented and pleasant, but their patter sounded slightly scripted to me.

runners+starting+blockThere’s nothing wrong with attentive staff, but you do need to give customers room to breathe. The rule with my own staff was always to greet customers when they entered the store and then leave them alone for at least a couple of minutes. There was a high ratio of staff to customers here though, so perhaps they needed to co-ordinate more.

In a luxury environment it’s easy to over-staff. Apple stores, for example, have a deliberate policy of no signage to encourage customers to ask for help. This works well but you have to be on top of your game in terms of availability of advisers. People paying these prices don’t like to queue!

The store layout was rather self defeating, and seemed to be largely making the best of a pretty lacklustre job. A stairwell that took you to the second floor was located very close to the entrance, which I imagine diverts a fair number of browsers away from the sales area on the ground floor. Also, considering this was a store obviously aimed at women, it seemed incongruous to me that their target demographic had to plod up a flight of stairs to get to the merchandise. Not a great strategic move and something I would have expected to have been re-modelled during the fit-out.

Visual merchandising was on the poor side, and there was no opportunity for direct digital interaction. One member of staff was toting an iPad, although it was unclear if this was for a customer service role, or just internal use.

Considering this company has recently invested heavily in omnichannel, it was odd that this didn’t seem to be heavily integrated into the store. One other peculiarity that struck me was the lack of in-store music. Something I would have thought would be de rigueur in any similar retail environment.

ShopperTrak says: The nature of the luxury sector means that the ratio of shoppers to staff can, on occasion, become unbalanced. Location based analytics can help retailers to identify their busiest periods, highlighting when there are too many – or too few – staff on the shop floor as a result. This helps teams to allocate resources effectively, ensuring that the customer is only greeted once. Each store has a unique DNA and knowing when to greet the customer depends largely on the nature of the store. Armed with this knowledge, retailers have the power to make decisions relevant to their own environment.

iPads are an increasingly important sales and transaction tool within the physical store, with staff now able to offer shoppers the opportunity to buy stock that may not be available in-store, there and then. Luxury retailers can measure the impact of in-store technology by carrying out test periods, tapping in to data to see what effect these periods are having on conversion rates. Brands can also use location based analytics to monitor the success of digital screens and displays by seeing how long customers are lingering in areas with digital features.

A New Dimension

The second store on my luxurious odyssey was only a short distance away from the first but it was like stepping into an entirely different dimension. It was obviously a fairly new fit out and had taken advantage of many of the contemporary twists now available. There was an impressive open aspect design, well thought out with a much more focussed approach to merchandising and display. This store showed just how much impact a well thought our environment can make to your experience, assuming you have the budget to spend.

in store screenVisual merchandising was well implemented with window displays cleverly arranged so that items in the window grabbed your attention and directed it towards matched displays further inside the store. This had the effect of drawing you instantly in. Digital was well integrated throughout, with screens showing footage of the merchandise featured in runway shows. You know you’d arrived at fashion central when you stepped into this store. These aspects also caught customer’s attention and increased general dwell times.

The fit out was heavily weighted towards experiential aspects that engaged you with the brand rather than pointing you towards specific products. It has that quintessentially unhurried atmosphere, enhanced by nice touches such as a chill-out area near the changing rooms, with sofas, magazines and hot drinks available. This echoes stores such as cycle Mecca Rapha, where customers are encouraged to simply hang out rather than being pressurised to buy.

Staff were equally laid back, but all seemed to be busy and focussed on key areas of the store. The location of sales advisers at any given point seemed strategic, so that they could move seamlessly from housekeeping activities to customer service when needed. I was approached after 3-4 minutes browsing – A much better timeframe for initial interaction. I felt like I could take my time, but someone would be available as soon as I need them.

Overall this store was an example of exactly how well a store can be laid out and operated, assuming money is no object.

ShopperTrak says: The shopping experience is constantly changing with the brick and mortar store no longer just somewhere to purchase products. Rather, it is now an environment in which to be inspired, entertained or just to relax, with the ‘retailtainment’ trend high on the agenda for much of the luxury sector.

The chill-out zone in this particular store is a fantastic example of this and a great initiative that encourages shoppers to spend substantial time in-store. However, it’s important that retailers monitor the success of these initiatives to see if they are driving more traffic to correlating zones, i.e. the changing rooms.

Location based analytics also enables retailers to analyse the optimal length of the in-store experience for each store location. For example, how long is the dwell time when it starts to negatively impact conversion rates? Longer dwell times are seen as a positive when the client is engaged and conversion rates are increasing, but when the conversion starts to drop it may mean that customers are spending too much time waiting or queuing for example.

Not a lot of help

My final outing was to another iconic bastion of the luxury sector.

In operational terms, one bad mark against them was that after being in the store for nearly 15 minutes, not a single sales adviser had spoken to me. This was also the smallest store I visited so there really was no excuse for the lack of attention, especially as I was the only person in there at the time. Perhaps I just didn’t look like their kind of customer.

InIgnore some ways being given the freedom to browse unmolested by staff was a blessing, but being completely ignored is just as bad as being bombarded with offers of help. It’s a perfect example of how important it is to get the balance right.

That said, the store itself was well appointed and had a good designer feel about it. The window display was impressive with some clever lighting effects. Merchandise in the store was placed across a number of different levels meaning that customers were encouraged to look up towards smaller items, whilst clothing was within easy reach lower down.

It seemed this store was aimed at local businesspeople browsing in their downtime, and in that sense the clothing offer and the environment were perfectly pitched to that market.

Certainly not a bad shop, but in my opinion not really hugely inspiring either. But then perhaps I’m not in their target demographic, which might also explain why none of their staff seemed to notice me.

ShopperTrak says: Window displays in this sector are often designed to be ‘showstoppers’ that reflect the opulence and fashion-forward approach so synonymous with luxury. It’s key that retailers measure the success of visual merchandising to understand the impact it’s having on draw rates, i.e. the number of people entering the store.

So a real triumvirate of an in-store experience. Something I’m itching to characterise as the good, the bad and the ugly, although that’s perhaps unfair to at least one of them. It was certainly an eye-opener in terms of the wide range of approaches to what is undoubtedly a narrow market sector. Some of the stores radiated an obvious nonchalance towards customer interaction, whereas others were falling over themselves to engage. From an experiential perspective I think stores number one and three could benefit from a proper independent mystery shopper report, with store number one needing a really fresh eye cast over the shop-floor design and customer experience perspective.

For my own part I saw some great ideas in shop number 2 that showed just how well things could be done, not just in the luxury market, but across the board. Factors that I’m sure will inform the way I approach such things in any future store environments I set up or advise on. Just like haute couture designs eventually filter down to the more mass market, we can all take aspects of these stores to use in our own businesses, even if we maybe can’t afford the full outfit.

Join me next time when I’ll be looking at electronics and tech retailers.  For more information on ShopperTrak’s full range of analytic services by click the link below.

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Oxford Finally Flips The Switch On The On/Off Shopping Centre

westgateoxfordOxford is an ancient city.  Even by medieval standards things move slowly here.  So after what seems like centuries of wrangling, planning applications, withdrawn projects, hand shaking and head banging, Oxford is finally set to join other cities with a giant shiny shopping centre nobody really needs any more.

Having experienced the damage that these behemoths can do to small local retailers, myself included, this is a moment I and many others have dreaded.

The council of course has applied a heavy spin on the whole project, whilst ushering the developers and large multi-nationals into the city with wide-eyed certainty that a new shopping centre will solve all the problems we now have.

We know at least one of those problems – that of affordable housing in the city centre – won’t even be dented by this grandiose project.  In a move that is frankly baffling from a socialist led council, planners have dashed all hopes that the accommodation element designed into the revamped centre would be for social housing or affordable homes.  Whilst Green councillors opposed this move, others apparently felt that poorer people won’t be able to keep the new apartments up to the standards they expect to be demanded.

So no comfortable inner-city pied-à-terres for the ordinary folk of Oxford then.  Which is a shame considering Oxford City Council provided virtually nothing for that sector last year, despite claims that this was a priority policy.

Jobs are not the only thing to consider

Judging by the analyses carried out over the past 10 years it looks highly likely that the new Westgate extension in Oxford will have a significant impact on other retail destinations both in the immediate vicinity and county wide.

The council has claimed that 3400 jobs will be created by the opening of the new centre, which seems like a rather optimistic number to me.  Even if one accepts that figure, previous analyses have suggested that the number of jobs created will be far outweighed by those that will be destroyed elsewhere in the city and the surrounding areas.

It’s very easy to focus just on the number of jobs created, but when similar centres have opened there have been many casualties in other areas. This doesn’t even take into account the damage that’s likely to be done to trade during the building and infrastructure works and the impact of additional competition for small retailers that attracting large multi-nationals into the area will provide.

Until the council addresses the systemic issues with people visiting the city, such as parking, local transport and city centre management, a revamped shopping centre isn’t going to add that much prosperity to a town encircled by much better alternatives.  There’s also some question over likely losses to the council in terms of business rates which could run in to hundreds of thousands.

The new shopping centre will likely have some novelty value for a few months, but once the realities of trading in Oxford begin to bite, I doubt it’ll be anything more than another usual-suspect clone-town brand zoo.

Years of disruption

According to a recent article in the Oxford Mail, a scrutinising committee of city centre councillors are due to meet to discuss ways of keeping businesses alive during the hugely disruptive infrastructure works needed for the new extension.

roadworksSo Oxford City Council wait until AFTER the works have begun to think about how to mitigate the problems that will inevitably be caused by the works?

Another great example of the forethought and careful planning we’ve come to expect from our wonderful city council!

I was at a meeting with both the city and county council leaders over a year ago where I highlighted the potential damage that will be done by the infrastructure works required for the Westgate extension. Having already experienced the same in Bristol a few years before, it was clear to me and many others that the likely upheaval required for the Westgate works were going to do more damage than they were likely to be worth in the current climate.

Seems like it all fell on deaf ears. As usual.

Empty shops

My business in Cornmarket Street closed it’s doors for the last time after 20 years last year. Despite numerous pronouncements in the press that the city council was eager to support local businesses, we got zip-all support, even after asking on several occasions.  Indeed, at one point their planning department were very close to scuppering the only deal we could achieve to sell the store. Had they not done a last minute U-turn there would have been one more empty and un-lettable shop in the city centre.

In an era where many retail chains are looking to reduce their portfolios, the time for this centre has been and gone.   At the end of this year, 40% of retail leases nationwide will come to an end, sparking speculation that many large and medium chains won’t renew them.  The costs of retail space in many towns, Oxford included, is now at odds with likely returns on investment.  A new mall plonked into the middle of that scenario risks hoovering up any viable city retailer, leaving the existing shopping areas a wasteland as companies let leases lapse and move on.

There’s already plenty of retail space in Oxford city centre, some of it lying vacant even now.  Not least the huge former HMV store, empty for most of last year in what should be a prime location on Cornmarket.  The new Westgate development will seriously shift the focus of the town away from the existing shopping areas with the main anchor store, John Lewis, being located well away from the current main shopping destinations.  Again this is a very similar scenario to Bristol’s Cabot Circus development, which saw most of the legacy retail locations abandoned en masse by any store that could afford the move.

Councillors are also now apparently worried about the growing number of empty shops in the city, despite previous claims that there were queues of businesses eager to take space.  Perhaps news has started to filter out that retailing in Oxford is not what it once was.

In that context one has to wonder who is going to populate the new cathedral of consumption when it is finally completed, and for those that do take up residence, what kind of trading environment will they find?  With one of the worst December trading periods on record just behind us and radical changes in consumer habits continuing apace, it really does beg the question about how much space will be required when the Westgate centre is completed in 2017.  Moreover what will the rest of the city look like once all the remaining viable stores have de-camped into the waiting warmth of a lovely new mall?

910484_23238014With council plans to push up the cost of parking YET AGAIN and the negative impact of roadworks, and the city centre looking like a building site, it’s likely most consumers will continue to go elsewhere to shop, surrounded as we are by much more attractive and easily reached locations around the city and the county.  And once again, experience tells me that once people find better alternatives, they’re unlikely to return, other than for a quick nose around the new development.

A committee composed of councillors with absolutely no idea how businesses in Oxford operate, setting out to ‘examine’ how to deal with these issues now, is tantamount to closing the door after the horse has bolted, lived out it’s natural life and ended up in a dog food tin.  This project as has been in the planning stages for so many years it’s truly staggering that the implications are only being discussed now.

Oxford is of course known as the city of ‘dreaming spires’.  It seems that in terms of strategic planning, many of our councillors have also been asleep on the job.