We Need Rates Reform Not Magic Rabbits

Pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Maybe it has something to do with the proximity of Easter, but it’s long been the tradition for chancellors to pull a rabbit out of the hat during a budget speech, and last week there were leporidae leaping about all over the place in Westminster.

Speculation is that the abundance of feats of fiscal phantasmagoria this time, were simply there to divert attention away from the fact that George Osborne has spectacularly failed to hit any of his own arbitrarily set targets which we are supposed to be judging him on.  But whatever the reason, the showstopper for most retailers was the changes to business rates.

As usual, in the run up to this budget, there were calls from retail pressure groups for  there to be some serious moves towards rates reform, rather than yet more promises of reviews and recommendations.  I, along with other campaigners, joined that chorus, although I have to say that this time round I wasn’t expecting much in the way of harmony.  I thought the indications were there that we’d not see any real structural  change in the current broken system of local taxation.

On the whole I think I was right, but there were some more helpful than usual measures in George’s big red box this year.  Unfortunately though, on closer scrutiny they’re not quite as positive as they first seem.

Move to CPI

The one element of the package that could be described as structural was the move to CPI from RPI in the setting of rates multipliers.  CPI is the main indicator used in most other government departments to set things like pension increases, so it’s long been indefensible to use RPI for payments going the other way.

Indeed the last government’s own tame celebrity consultant, Mary Portas, had this as one of the key recommendations in her high street review back in the heady days of 2011.  Although, like many of her recommendations, this was also ignored.

So on the face of it, it’s a good move, until you realise that it’s not going to be implemented until 2020.  The subtext of that for me is that we’ll be keeping the same anachronistic system of setting a tax using notional valuations for at least another 5 years.  Something I had hoped would have been consigned to history some years ago.threshold-graphic-zoom

Revaluation Cycles 

More evidence supporting that depressing assumption came with the plan to change revaluation cycles to 3 years rather than the current 5.  Again reaffirming that the Chancellor sees a long term continuation of the current arrangements, albeit in a slightly more responsive way.  Although, as he’s been seen to play fast and loose with these cycles when it suits him, including delaying the 2015 revaluation by two years, one wonders how much value there really is in this commitment.

Doubled Thresholds

The other course in this smorgasbord of rates tweaks was the doubling of the threshold before properties become eligible to pay business rates.  This was increased from £6000 to £12000 in one fell swoop, with tapered relief on properties up to the £15000 mark.  Something I’m sure Osborne hoped would give him the wow factor with the small business community.

And yes, it’s a bold move.  But considering the speed with which rental tones have continued to move, even through the recession, this change means the system will have just about caught up with reality only to see it speed off into the distance again.  This is especially true of the very high rented areas like London where decent retail properties below £12000 are going to be even rarer than magic rabbits.

The subtext of that for me is that we’ll be keeping the same anachronistic system of setting a tax using notional valuations for at least another 5 years

And let’s not forget that there are still many relatively small retailers who will continue to fall between two stools, in premises too large and over-rented to benefit from these changes and yet not large enough to have the economies of scale to cope with other challenges on the horizon, such as changes to pension liabilities and the new National Living Wage.

Someone Else’s Money

We also need to remember that in these times of austerity and dwindling local authority budgets, Osborne announcing these generous reductions in tax take is really him writing cheques he knows he’ll never have to cash.  As we all know, it’s always easier to play with someone else’s money.

Having told councils last year that they will be retaining 100% of business rates in exchange for further reductions in central government grants, making changes that will significantly impact that income seems like a breathtakingly cynical bit of game playing.  And this will have a knock on effect in town centres and local communities where small stores are trying to do business.

So, as much as I’m pleased that, by some estimates, as many as 50% of smaller retailers could be taken out of the current business rates madness altogether, I’m struggling to accept these measures as anything other than a sop to distract us away from the real prize of proper, lasting and equitable local taxation reform for all on the high street.

Piecemeal

Until we do have that, I can only see more piecemeal concessions being bolted on to a system already creaking under it’s own inefficiencies.  We still need a mechanism that’s responsive to local business conditions.  One that can be influenced for good and bad by local council policies and can be applied equally across all types and sizes of business.

all-or-nothingMy personal preference is for a system of local purchase tax, similar to what we see in many US stores.  But I know I’m in a minority in favouring that.  Indeed the very idea was discounted early on in discussions over reform last year.

Much as I support small retailers, I also believe that all sizes of business should pay into the local economy through such taxation.  But a system that took proper account of trading patterns, would mean that smaller businesses would pay an amount appropriate and, above all affordable, in their particular circumstances.

My personal preference is for a system of local purchase tax, similar to what we see in many US stores.

I’m happy for those businesses that will benefit from these changes, and I hope that they will stimulate local economies and help small independent retailers weather the continuing storm on our high streets.  But I remain concerned that these measures are not going to divert us from the goal of seeking a root and branch reform of a rotten system that should have been retired many years ago.

If anything I think the measures announced in the budget suggest that rates reform is going to be kicked into the long grass for at least the term of the current parliament.  If that’s the case I guess all we can expect in the immediate future are a few more rabbits emerging from that undergrowth, making a leap for the Chancellor’s top hat.

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The Undercover Analyst – Checking the Numbers on Mobile Phone Stores

main logo blueIt’s time for another of my regular checks on high street operators in association with retail analysis experts ShopperTrak. This time I’m looking at mobile phone stores, a category we’ve seen explode over the past 10-15 years and one which has come to dominate our high streets. As always these reports are written after actual visits to selected un-named stores and will focus on areas such as store design, operation, staff management and customer service.

Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a gadget freak.

I spent my youth dreaming of the kinds of gizmos that now populate our everyday lives. Star Trek style talking computers, Blade Runner video phones, Batman’s wrist worn communicator and, not forgetting, jet packs.

The last item on my list might still be a way off, but the others are all with us now in ways that most of us have come to regard as just a normal part of our ordinary lives. Those of us who can remember the days before you could stand in the middle of nowhere and to speak to someone on the other side of the world, simply by reaching into your pocket, probably won’t appreciate how mind blowing that still is. The fact that such technology has now settled in as part of the mundanity of every high street might have something to do with that.

JetstonsThese stores sell us brain meltingly complicated technology in much the same way as we’d pick up a packet of kidney beans in our local supermarket. In fact, in many cases, we could do both under the same roof. It’s technology Jim, but not as we knew it!

For this outing into the new frontier of consumer electronics I chose a road I once frequented on a regular basis looking for the latest in Hi-fi and sound equipment. Tottenham Court road in the 80s and 90s was THE place to come for the latest sleek sound system at knock down prices. Part of the process in those days was to visit every store looking for the best deal, before playing each shop off against one another. I have to admit that’s a bargaining technique that stood me in good stead in future years in business.

It was therefore saddening to see upon my return, that my choice of electronics stores these days was not as diverse as it once was It is predominantly populated with mobile phone stores, with only a few of the store fascias I remember from the old days.

I chose to visit three mainstream mobile phone shops to make direct comparisons between them. As they are all selling exactly the same hardware, with only notional differences in tariff offers, it was quite easy to gauge how they stacked up against each other.

The Price is Wrong

The first store was arranged all on one floor so my arrival was easily visible to all the staff, who immediately came over and spoke to me. I could also see that other customers were being dealt with throughout the store. Thankfully, there wasn’t too much of the hard sell which can be common in similar stores.

oopsThere was some impressive up-selling going on from the outset as the store manager who had approached me enquired about the status of my current mobile contract. Interesting that these days no one ever assumes that you wouldn’t have a mobile phone!

Mobile phone stores are now gradually diversifying into ancillary products and this particular store had a good range of headphones, presumably for those who also use their phones as MP3 devices. I enquired about the price on a pair that caught my eye and this is where the fun began.

The price displayed said £160 which both I and the sales adviser felt was a tad on the high side. On checking the computer it turned out he was right, the actual price was an infinitely more reasonable £25! Neatly proving the advantage that a human has over a machine generated price tag. It also suggests that this company might need to double check their merchandising procedures! Regular shop floor and merchandising audits have been a feature of my own stores and really should be carried out at least once a month. This neatly demonstrates why.

Overall though it, was a very neat and well run store. A good experience.

ShopperTrak Says – Using retail analytics, it is possible to measure the success of different initiatives, including new customer service programmes and training to make sure your sales staff devote their full attention to engaging with the customer at the right time.

Wall of Death

In store number two, customer interaction seemed like it was top of the agenda as I was greeted by a designated staff member from behind a podium at the entrance.

Sadly, this seemed to be the limit of the initiative as I was then confronted by a human wall consisting of 4 sales staff in a line, each chatting to each other and apparently oblivious to my presence.

This was a store that appeared to know what was needed but was supremely bad at delivering it. Displays were messy and in desperate need of a spring clean. In one corner I noticed a seating area with charging points for phones, presumably there to increase dwell time in the store. A good idea in theory, although the floor was grubby and the chairs looked like they’d seen better days. There were no magazines or other literature for me to read and the idea of any refreshments being available seemed a forlorn hope.

ShopperTrak says – It’s crucial that retailers look at labour allocation in order to strike a happy balance between the number of customers entering the store and the availability of staff on hand to greet and serve. Shopper traffic data provides retailers with their truest measurement of sales opportunity, which is key to effectively scheduling labour. By scheduling the appropriate amount of employees and the best sales staff with the hours of greatest opportunity, it is possible to turn labour from an expense into a strategic sales tool. This includes including identifying when there is too many staff on the shop floor. During our visit, staff far outweighed customers.

I made a hasty exit past the still self absorbed sales staff and headed for store number 3.

Open For Business

On first appearance, my final mobile phone store looked like it was going to be a bit of a wash out. Visual merchandising was pretty weak with a painfully sparse window display seemingly based on an odd cardboard box theme.

break-time-coffeeOnce inside, however, it was a completely different story – an effective layout with lots of opportunities to interact with products and plenty of customers being attended to on a one to one basis. There seemed to be a high number of staff and no one appeared to be kept waiting – a great result! The displays were clear and informative and would have kept me amused for a fair while even if there was a short delay in service.

I noticed there was a downstairs area so I headed off to investigate, finding a similar seating area to the one in the previous store. But that’s where the similarity ended. The execution of the idea here was far more accomplished. There were the same plug in stations for your phone or laptop, but the area was clean with a designer look sofa, plenty of literature to read a tea and coffee station, water cooler and even a well stocked fruit bowl! It looked like a place you could have stayed for lunch, although you might eventually have to buy something for the sake of appearances!

The final touch was the availability of meeting rooms adjacent to the seating area. Not something I’ve ever seen in a store before, but somehow it seemed to fit with the general ethos. It had a real ‘open for business’ feel and I’m sure this area could generate spin-off sales of their technology products. Something other similar stores could learn from.

ShopperTrak says – The break-out area was a real nod to the ‘retailtainment’ trend, going beyond just selling to shoppers, to entertain , and inspire them by providing the best possible shopping experience. In this case, the lounge was the perfect opportunity to say, ‘come on in, stay a while’. By encouraging shoppers to spend longer in the store, retailers increase the likelihood of shoppers making a purchase.

However, the measure of a good window display cannot be underestimated., if potential clients do not feel the pull to come into the there is no amount of entertainment inside the store that will help drive new sales, Being aware of pass by traffic peaks and having attractive window displays can really boost draw rates and as a consequence new sales.

This more positive experience marked the end of my survey of the mobile operators. Overall they seemed a mixed bag. Some good ideas in terms of design and add-on services, but in a few cases this wasn’t backed up by staff with enough engagement for my liking. The other interesting aspect was the expansion into other categories which seems to be a common factor in many retail sectors these days. With the merger of Dixons and Carphone Warehouse still fresh in our minds I wonder how long we’ll continue to see mobile phone stores on the high street dedicated only to this one narrow aspect of technology.

In an attempt to answer that question, I’ll be taking a look at how the wider technology sector is faring in my next report in a few weeks time. So don’t touch that dial folks!  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.

Who Really Foots The Bill For Christmas Markets?

Christmas Markets

‘Twas the fortnight before Christmas and all through the town, retailers looked forward to one of those rare periods when turnover outstrips overheads and that wolf at the door finally takes a well deserved holiday.

Except that expectant buzz in the streets and malls of old England has in recent years been supplanted by the sound of lorries dumping small wooden structures in what were once the jealously guarded open spaces of the retail heartland.

Ahats-crowdre these timber toadstools some sign of an impending gardening expo? Are they perhaps a portentous re-appearance of the wooden henges worshipped by our prehistoric ancestors? Were they dropped in by pipe smoking, flat cap wearing aliens as part of some elaborate shed-snatching invasion of old duffers?

No. It’s just the make-believe Bavarian market is here again!

Yes, that great British tradition, as ancient as flat screen TVs, is once more being rolled out in virtually every town from Penzance to Perth. City centres and shopping malls are rammed to the rafters with tongue and groove grottos selling food, fashion, jewellery, knitwear and all manner of consumer goodies, just in time to take advantage of the busiest time of the year.

And to prove their authenticity, there’s even a bloke in lederhosen proffering a cremated sausage in a bun. What’s the wurst that could happen?

Oddly enough for most of the permanent stores around the same area, it already has. You see, they were also rather hoping to be able to tap into this festive bonanza themselves. They’d all spent the rest of the year keeping the towns and malls thriving, paying their rent and rates through thick and (mostly) thin, waiting for those precious few weeks when they’ll reap the benefits of this hard work with anything upwards of 40% of their annual turnover.

It’s a shame then that the only acknowledgement of the year-round commitment of regular traders is to have their carefully crafted Christmas themed window displays buried behind acres of cheap garden furniture, housing fair-weather traders focussed on cashing in on the very same goodwill they’ve spent all year building up.

For the most part there’s abject indifference from the perpetrators of these events to the impact they have on trade for everyone else. The rationale of local councils and mall operators seems to be that permanent retailers are already on the hook for rent and rates, so there’s no immediate reason to consider their position when there’s yet more easy lucre to be prised out of a few temporary traders. And at around £150 a day, that’s a lot of Christmas cheer for someone’s balance sheet.

Space Invaders

Besides the be-hutted markets, there’s also an annual boom in the provision of the prosaically named ‘Retail Merchandising Units’ – Or ‘market stalls’ as anyone outside the industry would call them – in the otherwise neutral space that was carefully designed by expensive architects into most modern malls. Again these are mostly populated by people that sit out the rest of the year safe from pesky things like overheads, during periods when there aren’t hordes of customers throwing cash at them.

Oval-RMUNot that I have anything against market traders. I was one myself for 7 years before starting my high street chain. But even then I traded all year round, wiping the snow off my pitch in February and standing in the freezing wind and rain to make less money than my stall was costing me. But in those days there was a proper acknowledgement that you’d paid your dues. You got the pick of the best pitches before the seasonal traders got a look in, and you knew your contribution to the annual ambience was valued.

And these ‘parachuted in’ seasonal markets have just as much of an impact on the existing street and market traders, as they’re often run by promotions companies with no connection to the local market management and so little interest in keeping regular traders on side.

There is of course the argument that these events bring in custom who will then shop with the regular traders. Personally I think that’s about as logical as suggesting cheap bootleg DVDs will increase the sales of cinema tickets. I know from my own experience this year, trading in a department store in close proximity to one of these markets, that business has been negatively impacted. And it’s this way every year.

Spread The Good Cheer

The most galling thing for local businesses is that they have no control over the location or the timing of these events. All forward planning for pre-Christmas promotions can be totally undermined by the arrival of these shanty shops.

Isn’t it about time mall landlords and local authorities started to consider the people that help pay their wages for 11 months of the year, instead of how to make a quick buck off those that they only see when Santa’s grotto is wheeled out of the storage cupboard?

Christmas markets have their place. But that isn’t slap bang in the middle of already existing trading areas where hard grafting retailers have spent all year creating the good will these events feed off.  (Or is it?  Register your vote in the poll below)

Dan-Aykroyd-in-Trading-Pl-007Let them have their own space in locations not already well served with long term retailers who need the Christmas rush to make ends meet. Or at the very least ensure that the various offers don’t compete with existing traders. Just because it’s only for a couple of weeks, that shouldn’t mean tenant mix policy should be ignored. Like all other traders in mixed developments, they need to ensure that Santa Claus sticks to his user clause.

Better still, involve the permanent retail community in these events. The planning for these markets often starts in the early part of the year, just at the point when most regular retailers start to feel the cold winds of post-Christmas reality blow away that warm glow of the previous few weeks. So if landlords and councils really want to engage with their retail community, now is the time to think about it. Not in the run up to what should be the busiest trading periods of the year.

Perhaps offer special deals to stores that might also want to take a stall. Organise bounce-back promotions to bring customers back to the area in January. Think about pre-Christmas events that could boost trade in the high street before the shed traders arrive. At the very least make sure that there won’t be a clash of priorities on important dates. In short, value your long term stores as more than set dressing for a seasonal smash and grab.

Remember that for many people shopkeeping is for life, not just for Christmas.

Have a happy and profitable 2015 everyone!

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Pressing The Reset Button On The Commercial Property Market

reset-przyciskI have this annoying habit of confusing two recently formed organisations.

Firstly there’s the Future High Street Summit, set up by high street campaigner Clare Rayner to bring together experts and activists concerned about the state of the great British town centre. It currently takes the form of a conference, open to anyone, but especially grassroots imagineers looking to contribute to process of re-building communities around a social and commercial hub.

Then we have The Future High Street Forum, set up by the government, supposedly to build on the work of the 2012 Mary Portas review. They have a smattering of academics and some fringe involvement from trade bodies, but largely it’s composed of vested interests, property investors, large corporate retailers and politicians appointed by a government department with no readily apparent clue about what is actually needed to deal with the problems in our town centres.

As you may be able to tell, even though they have similar names, there is a big difference between the aims and achievements of both bodies. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the first Future High Street Summit earlier this year and found it a very interesting experience. Rather fittingly held in the futuristic environs of the National Space centre in Leicester, it comprised of two days of speakers, discussion groups and networking opportunities.

A number of knowledgeable speakers shared experiences and insights over the two days I was there. Some I agreed with, some I didn’t. But overall there was a good cross-section of exemplars and I’d imagine everyone found something to inform their own activities and responsibilities. I certainly enjoyed the networking sections, chatting with people I already knew and making a few new acquaintances, some of which I’m still in touch with.

Where’s Brandon?

One notable absence though was the then Minister for High Streets, Brandon Lewis. He’d been billed as a speaker for some months, and having missed my opportunity to fire a question or two at him at his whistle stop visit to Retail Week Live conference a few weeks earlier, I was looking forward to getting a second chance in Leicester.

Brandon-Lewis_2886856bSadly though, at the last minute he discovered he had to somewhere else to be on that day. An important matter of state perhaps, or maybe it was just his turn to polish the Westminster cat. I remember checking his Twitter feed on the day to find out what could have been so important for him to break such a long standing engagement. I can’t remember it being anything earth shatteringly important. Certainly not as important as a conference bringing together people to discuss options for the very thing he was supposed to be responsible for at the time. Perhaps, like me, he got the two similarly named organisations mixed up and only realised his mistake at the last minute. That might have been an embarrassing admission for him, considering he was the chair of the government forum.

Whatever the reason the DCLG sent along a polished civil servant stand-in to read a prepared speech in impressive cut-glass tones. Rather more of a political treatise than an engaging presentation, it sounded like a lecture he’d already given a dozen times to the politically faithful. The questions piled up on my notepad, poised for moment when he would finally shut up. But, as his boss had done a few weeks before, he scuttled off with no time for in depth discussion of government policy. In the final analysis, perhaps the lack of engagement with attendees on both occasions speaks volumes about the government’s genuine attitude towards the issues.

We’re All Forum

Over the past year or so we’ve had a number of announcements from the Future High Streets Forum. Last year Government Minister Nick Boles suggested that hard to let stores could be re-tasked as residential properties, thus neatly erasing the problem of abandoned high streets and giving property developers free reign to make a lot of money out of the plight of inner cities.

No matter that the Forum was set up to help get these areas back into retail and other community uses. Let’s just solve the problem of over-rented, over-rated retail locations by turning them into luxury pied de terres. In one fell swoop this would provide hope to perfidious landlords who’ve backed themselves into a corner with fantasy loan to asset values and reduce the pool of available retail properties, thus inflating the market even more.

Their latest wheeze yet again involves the property hue of their spectrum of responsibility. A joint announcement from the Forum and the British Property Federation set out a plan for what Liz Peace of the BPF called a ‘collective ownership scheme’. The driving principle being that the disparate nature of property ownership on our high streets didn’t lend itself to the same sorts of controls available to the operators of shopping malls. Unusually for me, I agreed with Liz on this point. We do need curation on the high street. So many towns now are clogged up with the same usual suspect operators. from the ubiquitous mobile phone stores to the omnipresent coffee bars, many high streets are just plain boring.

Attack Of The Clones

The principle of the clone town is not new. It was identified some years ago and the phrase has long since slipped into the national lexicon, in many cases without much concern for what it actually means. Shopping centres have been quick to capitalise on this phenomenon and have applied fairly rigid tenant mix policies within their specific fiefdoms. I say ‘fairly’ rigid as it’s not unheard of for a big bucks offer to banish all concerns over duplicate use. You only have to look at Covent Garden and count the number of multinational perfume and body products brands selling virtually the same thing to see that.

p1060068-480x321But this more ordered approach to the shopping experience has paid dividends for mall operators and their tenants so it’s sensible that the idea should be applied to the high street. Of course the stumbling block is still the fractured nature of property ownership. Ultimately each landlord is more concerned with getting the best deal from a tenant, regardless of the type of use. What do they care if there’s already 6 other mobile phone store in town. If number 7 is prepared to a ludicrously speculative rent they’ll take their money.

The BPF’s solution to this is a system whereby landlords would pool resources and agree a common lettings policy. In one model being proposed they would each have shares in an overall property portfolio, shifting the focus away from individual lettings to a more holistic trading environment.

Curated High Streets

The idea of a curated high street is something I’ve long championed. But I’ve always proposed controls via more detailed planning laws. Instead of broad brush usage classes being factored into local plans, I’d have specific operator types defined by an elected team of high street managers, drawn from various parts of the property spheres. Town planners, local retail groups, landlords, property advisers and local consultants, maybe something like the town teams we already have, but with more accountability. There would be zoned areas within a well defined tenant mix policy which any new tenancy would have to comply with. This would prevent disconnected property interests simply chasing the money, regardless of duplicated use.

Of course this is something that could be handled by a self regulated body of property owners, but there would be a risk that vested interests could ultimately over-ride the what’s best for the local trading environment. Even if the income from these property groups was pooled by way of a shareholding collective, as suggested in one proposal from the BPF, There would always be potential for larger shareholders to dominate the group. And as I’ve described above, self regulation becomes rather malleable when there’s enough money on the table.

The other danger that I see from allowing such a collaboration between property managers is the possibility of terms fixing. Rents and other leasing policy issues could easily become entrenched, leaving tenants little room for negotiation in a target area. Instead of dealing with one landlord, they’d be dealing with a cabal. Lease negotiations are already skewed enough in favour of the landlords. We don’t want to be fomenting conditions for the construction of a cartel in all but name.

The Big Idea

Fellow town centre campaigner Dan Thompson and I have recently been kicking about a more radical solution to the problem of restrictive practices on the high street. We’ve posited the idea that empty properties could be purchased by a retail property trust and let to independent operators on a non-profit basis. That’s not to say the rents would be at giveaway levels – the idea would be to generate funds for other local projects as well as to expand the property portfolio – but rents would be kept sustainable with respect to other costs and the profitability of tenant’s businesses.

There would be some element of profit sharing involved along with principles of tenant mix, competition, and the curation of the overall trading environment. But small businesses and a variety of uses could be encouraged to keep an area varied and vibrant.

Rents would be pegged to factors other than the usual relentless pursuit of asset valuation. That way we could ensure some longevity for both the local trading environment and the businesses within it. Moreover pioneering entrepreneurs who move into the poorer trading zones, and then revitalise them through their own creativity, innovation and bloody hard work would get to reap the benefits when the locale becomes trendy and profitable. Rather than landlords immediately following the money and moving in yet more coffee bars, mobile phone shops and anyone else who dangles a big wad of cash in their general direction.

Ultimately the goal would be to press the reset button on the commercial property market, providing some alternative dimension to the rental tone and thus undermining the closed shop rent review stitch ups that usually lead to ratcheting rents and more literally closed shops.

Rising-RentI’m proposing a return to the days when landlords and property owners worked in conjunction with tenants to foster a long term relationship. Both were happy to receive realistic returns on their investments and were able to plan for the future, rather than constantly watching over their shoulder waiting for the next rent review or feverishly calculating the chances of your own survival when the shop next door is let at a blue sky rent that you know you’ll never be able to afford.

You can call me naive – indeed somebody did on Twitter shortly after I revealed this idea in my Retail Week column last week – but I really believe that if we’re to encourage future generations of high street pioneers, we need a cultural shift away from the idea that commercial property is the investment gift that keeps on giving.

In my view, the day landlords swapped the value of a solid reliable tenancy for beliefs in such fairytale concepts as upwards only rent reviews and ever increasing portfolio values was the day our high streets started to die.

So there you have it. A brief taster of my idea of a high street utopia. Somewhat different from that proposed by the future High Streets Forum and the BPF, but something that would be about long term, sustainable revitalization, not just a valuation on a balance sheet.

I believe that if the high street is to have a future, in whatever form, we need to be thinking these seemingly impossible thoughts. And if the government and their various advisers are serious about revitalisation they should be encouraging concepts that do more than prop up the property status quo. If anyone else wants to get step outside that box with me, please get in touch.

This blog was originally published as a guest article on the Future High Street Summit blog

The Undercover Analyst – How Focussed is Fashion on the High Street?

main logo blueAs part of a new project in association with retail analytics experts ShopperTrak, I’m going to be looking 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 specific but unnamed stores, I’m going to be commenting on how they fare on certain operational areas identified by ShopperTrak as being key to a successful and customer responsive store. I’ll be looking for good and bad practices, innovative ideas and exemplars for all of us to either follow or avoid in our own businesses.

My starting point was my home town of Oxford where I looked at mid-range high-street fashion. I’ve run stores in Oxford myself for nearly 20 years so I’ve witnessed the evolution of the local commercial environment at first hand.  The central retail core in Oxford is not much larger than you’d find in any town centre high street and consists of three main shopping thoroughfares, two indoor shopping centres and a covered market catering almost exclusively for independents. The main shopping street is Cornmarket, where most of this survey was based. Around six major stores were visited each with large footprints and each selling quite similar products to a broad demographic of fashion conscious 18-35 year olds.

Same difference

910484_23238014The overriding impression across most of the mainstream stores was that they all bought their shopfits from the same generic contractors. With the exception of one store, well themed towards their target customers, store layouts were similar to the point of duplication. It may be the nature of the beast that there are only so many ways you can support a clothes hanger, but shop-fittings generally looked like they were ‘off the shelf’, even though I’d imagine they weren’t.

Considering the size of some of these companies and their large marketing spend, brand identification in some stores was not as strong as it should have been. You could have dropped me blindfolded into any one of these stores and I’d have had a hard time telling you which one I was in.

ShopperTrak says : Differentiation is key. Location-based analytics provide retailers with the tools they need to understand the customer profile better, especially how shoppers are moving around the shop floor. As Ian points out, many stores have similar layouts but this is often down to guess work rather than knowing exactly how customers are moving through the store. Understanding the customer journey improves the overall experience so retailers need to have an accurate view of what is happening in store to help them measure effectiveness and constantly make improvements. By doing this we may see an end to all stores looking the same.

SALE SALE SALE!

Some of this anonymity might have been down to the fact that it appeared to be the height of the summer sales in the hallowed city with the main shopping areas a sea of red and white signage.

These days it’s quite difficult to pick out more than 2 consecutive weeks when someone isn’t on sale. The necessity to strip window and internal displays down to the bare-bones during such promotions left no real indication of how attractive the window dressing would normally be. Window displays have somewhat fallen out of favour in recent years, dividing between the bog standard or the eye-popping retail theatre. Of course your window display is supposedly the thing that draws customers inside your store, so outside of sale periods it has to be an important consideration.

ShopperTrak says : Traffic patterns change over different periods – particularly so during a sale. Even though the store feels busier retailers need to be sure that their promotions are actually driving the maximum number of customers to make a purchase. By analysing draw rates, or the ability to bring people into the store, retailers can measure whether promotions and merchandising are helping to entice their fair share of shoppers over the threshold versus competitors. If the draw rate begins to fall it’s a sure sign that visual merchandising is not working as effectively as it should be.

Location, Location, Location!

Internal store layouts seemed to be quite ad hoc. Most large stores use pre-planned merchandising plans produced by head office but none of them seemed particularly well suited to traffic flow in store, neither did they look like they could be responsive to dead zones that were fairly evident. For example, retail environment guru Paco Underhill has identified the area around your main entrance as the ‘landing pad’. His suggestion was that nothing should be placed here as customers are usually looking further into the store to see where they were headed. That seemed pretty much the case in one store where a large gondola had been plonked right in the entrance-way – it was pretty much ignored by everyone coming through the door.

1215579_52407894The other obvious fail in my opinion was the tendency to place items that were in the sale at the back of the store. The intuitive logic is of course that this will draw customers further into the store, presumably wowing them with the non-promotional stock on the way. Personal experience combined with this particular visit tell me that this strategy is far too simplistic. Most customers looked straight to the rear of the store and bypassed everything else on their quest to get to the cheaper goodies. There may have been a method in this apparent madness. Keeping the sales hysteria at the back of the shop along with the associated mess and mis-matched merchandise may be a good move in some cases. Also I guess there’s a chance that customers may give the full priced stock another look on the way out after perhaps finding nothing in the sale to their liking.

In these days of eye-watering rent and rates, customer flow within a store is something that needs careful analysis. It’s really not something that can be left to gut instinct or rigidly pre-planned merchandising charts.

ShopperTrak says : Heat maps help retailers determine which areas customers are dwelling in and how long they spend there. This is crucial when analysing the effectiveness of merchandising and product placement. It also enables stores to re-invigorate quieter zones or analyse changes to determine the optimum store layout. On a micro-level retailers can examine conversion rates within specific areas of the store to gain a deeper level of insight into overall performance.

Customer experience

The general customer experience in all but one of the stores visited was pretty good. Stock displays were generally well maintained, apart from one rather tired looking mannequin that personally I’d have pensioned off years ago.

One of the more mainstream stores was a fairly recent opening so had the benefit of newer merchandising displays. This certainly gave a fresher look which was enhanced by the large airy feel of the store. They also had a good layout of stock with accessories and handbags at the front where they can be easily browsed and selected ‘on the hoof’, with items such as shoes at the rear where more time and interaction with staff would be required. However here, as with all the stores visited, staff engagement with customers was nigh on non-existent. Perhaps the labour intensive nature of the display floor meant that sales adviser’s saw maintenance of displays as a higher property than talking to customers.

Personally I’ve always trained my staff to aim at somewhere between intrusive and attentive. Many of the stores I visited could have benefited from tasking particular members of their sales teams with approaching customers on a one to one basis. There’s an obvious ethos with many of these stores that it’s self-service and customers only receive service when they ask for it. But these shops are semi-aspirational in design, they’re not supermarkets. They’re selling desirable fashion, not tins of sweetcorn. In that environment there’s nothing worse than leaving customers with the impression that interaction is bottom of the service remit.

827556_46291532In general though customer service was OK. We saw one person leave a pay point empty while a customer waited patiently, which wasn’t great, but as it was our fault for sending them on the hunt for a different size of a T-shirt that might be an unfair observation. It’s a dilemma for any sales adviser when there’s only one of you but two people who need your help. Perhaps something that could be sorted with better planning of staffing patterns.

ShopperTrak says : Understanding how many people are coming in to the store and which areas they’re dwelling in is a crucial reflection of the overall customer experience. Increasing the average time that shoppers spend in store helps to drive both conversion rates and average transaction sizes. If they stay in the shop longer it means they’re having a better experience.

Retailers can use interior analytics to measure dwell times, looking at whether shoppers are spending the right amount of time in the right areas, how staff are engaging with customers, how well queues are being dealt with or how effectively promotions are working.

Messy but busy

Only one store had significant queues at the pay point and this was also the store with the most untidy shop floor. Perhaps an indication that tidy displays don’t necessarily mean better sales. Or maybe the trashed shop floor just shows how busy they were. However they seemed to be a victim of their own success with at least one case of abandonment being observed as customers tired of waiting to part with their hard earned cash. Again I suspect proper deployment of staff and maybe a re-think on merchandising strategy would help with problems like this.

ShopperTrak says : Retailers need to have an accurate view of their power hours – i.e. their peak selling times. Only by having insight into this can they plan accordingly. Any re-stocking or staff breaks should take place outside of these times in order to ensure the most effective shopper to assistant ratio. Put simply, the fewer the staff available in store during peak traffic times the worse the customer experience is going to be.

As a first outing it was an interesting exercise for me. There are obvious compromises between function and form and many competing demands on the time of the floor staff. But there were many obvious improvements that could be made, perhaps with the assistance of some location-based analytics, particularly in terms of customer flow data and staff movements.

Join me next time when I’ll be looking at how luxury brands fare.  In the meantime you can check out ShopperTrak’s full range of analytic services by clicking the link below.

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Let’s Not Plan Any Retail Street Parties Just Yet

bunting_2242499bFor many retail and economic pundits the term ‘anal-yst’ seems very apt.  So many of them seem to talk out of their backsides that it’s rare for me to find one that I agree with in broad terms.

Jon Copestake is one such individual, and I frequently find myself in agreement with the majority of his comments in Retail Week Magazine.  His comments today – Despite optimism, a UK retail recovery remains fragile – are no exception.

Along with many others, he’s quoted the LDC and Springboard figures that show a very tiny improvement in high street vacancy rates as part of the general consensus of optimism that seems to be building.  There were equally modest positive increments in retail sales figures which, whilst being better than expected, are still in the order of 1%.

Last week we saw breathless reports that the nebulous and somewhat metaphysical indicator known as ‘consumer confidence’ had finally recovered from the negative position it had been in for 10 years.  We were presumably expected to rejoice that this number had now reached a big fat zero, all of us clapping with one hand whilst frantically grasping handfuls of straws with the other.

Having spent a small portion of my academic career designing questionnaires, I’ve never been convinced by such a slippery concept.  Quite what real use a number based on asking a select sample of people if they’re likely to spend a few quid in the coming weeks is supposed to be eludes me.  I think it’s more something that retailers and investors cling on to as a comforter, intended to give the impression that we know the unknowable – the inside of a consumer’s head.

It’s hard to ignore the conclusion that the effort we all put it to predicting doom and gloom around the time of the collapse ultimately led to a self fulfilling conclusion.  But now we seem equally eager to ‘big up’ minuscule vacancy level movements in the order of 0.5% or a 0.4% – which in statistical significance terms are pretty much static – as evidence that good times are just around the corner.

The overall assessment from many retail analysts is that we’ll never see a return to the heady days of the early noughties.   ONS figures suggest that even though wage growth has edged ahead of inflation, most households are still around 10 years behind in real terms spending power.

Even if wages do rise in real terms there are just too many other ways for people to spend money now, assuming the average person ever really gets back to a point where they’ll feel they have the cash to splash around.  Factor in an ever imminent increase in mortgage rates, along with another housing price boom and the whole scenario starts to take on the familiar twists of the path that led us to disaster last time.

There are so many artificial factors driving the so-called recovery I think it’s far too early to be planning the next major roll-outs.  Low interest rates, the property bubble being inflated by government help to buy schemes, changes in weather patterns, even mis-sold PPI payouts are all shifting winds blowing across the sands of the retail landscape.  And we all know where building on sand gets us.

Whatever the numbers are based on there seems to be a mounting roar of expectation that the bunting will be out for a great big retail street party any day now.  Something of a turnaround from the interminable reports of the exact opposite a couple of years ago.  Personally I’m far from convinced that what we’re feeling are the positive winds of change and more worried that the rush of air could just be the prelude to another almighty slap right in our over-eager little faces.

Retail Technology – Master or Servant?

Facetime-Video-Phone-1950sAs I approach 20 years as a high street retailer I think I may have reached that age when I look back through the Vaseline smeared lens of nostalgia to simpler times when summers were longer, life was sweeter, shops were called shops, rather than stores, and the only channels we talked about were the 4 we had on our 20 inch TVs.

In those barely remembered days, window shopping meant standing with your nose pressed to a plate glass shopfront rather than your Microsoft phone, Android was a morose character in the BBC version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a web browser was someone who took rather than more than a healthy interest in arachnid architecture.

I’m not sure if it’s the change in the weather, the recent march of the souls of the undead on Halloween or simply the calm before the chaos of Christmas kicks in, but the last week or so has seen a marked increase in the proposal of ideas that will supposedly elevate the retail industry from these humble roots to previously undreamed of pantheons of technological supremacy.  Personally I’m not convinced.

Dynamic Pricing

Firstly we had Kingfisher’s Ian Cheshire and his predictions about dynamic pricing systems.  LCD shelf edge labels connected to a central computer will, he believes,  revolutionise the high street, allowing prices to be changed by the hour in response to demand, the presence of a particular customer demographic or even the proximity of a particular customer.

This was coincidentally backed up by a piece from Roy Horgan in the same edition of Retail Week Magazine, holding forth on pretty much the same hokum. I guess we can’t blame Roy, considering he works for a company that would likely be at the forefront of a roll-out of such technology, but as a retailer I’d have thought Ian Cheshire would have had more sense.

Comparing the day to day retail proposition with the pricing flexibility of an airline ticket or a hotel room is to miss the fundamental point by a nautical mile.  With the exception of some food uses, consumers are just as able to be flexible with their custom, so changing prices at particular times will only shift buying patterns.

To me this just sounds like the holy grail that RFID was held up to be some years ago.  Back then we were told that we’d have radio tags in everything from T-shirts to teabags but in didn’t happen.  Why?  Because ultimately the investment in the technology required didn’t justify the expense.  Sure, it would be great to be able to scan an entire shopping cart in one go, but if you need to ensure everything down to your last tin of beans has a tag on it that probably costs more than the contents, it’s never going to fly.

Click and Print Bling

Next we had the idea from Argos digital director Bertrand Bodson, that within 15 years we’d not have to worry about having our online purchases being shipped to us.  No more waiting for the delivery man or picking up that irritating ‘while you were out’ card.  No, according to Bodson we’ll all be furnishing ourselves with 3D printers where everything will appear like magic from within.

This was either a very transparent attempt at grabbing a few column inches during a slow news week, or Bertrand had been watching far too much Star Trek in his spare time.  He certainly didn’t seem to understand how 3D printing worked or what it’s limitations were.  The idea that anything other than the most simple products could be delivered in this way is plainly ludicrous.

handmade-jewelleryFor example, one of the products Argos will apparently be sending to us via this new channel will be jewellery.  As a jeweller myself I found this a heroically ill-conceived statement.  Presumably the idea is that we’ll all be sitting with a stack of gold or silver in our 3D printers, along with an equally dazzling collection of precious or semi-precious stones. Then, once we’ve ‘printed’ out all the components for the necklace of our dreams we’d only have to gain the knowledge of an experienced jeweller to polish them, finish them and then put the whole thing together.  That should take 2 or 3  years study on a good jewellery making course, plus the access to a small workshop, but that’s got to be better than waiting from the completed article to come through the letterbox right?

Why Fi?

Broadly this idea that technology will be the answer to all our problems seems to be taking hold across the industry.  A major plank of the recently published review by Bill Grimsey and his team suggested that one of the key innovations that will save the high street from ultimate demise is a wireless network that will apparently have customers prowling the streets with their noses pressed to mobile devices informing them of offers in the stores in the locality.  Presumably this will be a far better option than just raising their heads and looking in the shop windows.  I don’t dispute that Wi-Fi provision will play an important role in any future community area, but the idea of bombarding shoppers with local offers and adverts via a mobile device has been tried before without much success.  Perhaps it’s an idea who’s time will come, but the practical aspects of armies of people tapping palm pads rather than simply wandering about the shops seems to me at odds with what I understand as normal human behaviour.

Google Glass

google-glass-the-jerkProponents of Google glass have similar aspirations, with digital commerce solutions provider Venda recently publishing a report entitled “Wearable Technology: The High Street’s Secret Weapon?”.  Again the idea seems to be that wearing a clunky bit of face furniture with it’s origins in the 1970s children’s TV show Joe 90, will give you far more insight into available offers and promotions than simply looking at a sign next to the product.

I can appreciate blue sky thinking as much as the next person.  I know many of these seemingly unworkable ideas need to be thrown into the ring to allow them to be torn into digestible pieces that at some point may help to construct the next must-have innovation.

I’m by no means a technophobe either.  I’ve been working with computers since 1973 when the processing power we now take for granted in a microwave oven would have needed two huge rooms to house it, along with team of technicians on 24 hour call to periodically hit things with hammers.

I’m an early adopter of most new tech.  My company has had a website since 1995, and I designed and programmed from scratch the EPOS system than has run our inventory control and customer interfaces for the past 20 years, after finding a dearth of such software in 1994.

The good old days?

greengrocers1945So this isn’t a lament for the ‘good old days’ when ruddy faced greengrocers weighed out veg by eye and knew every customer for a 5 mile radius (although that was a golden era I can almost remember).  No, I fully understand that as modern retailers we all need to get our heads round at least some of this newspeak.  But my fear is that as ever more of these technologies are heralded as the answer to engaging an increasingly jaded consumerate, are we not also in danger of confusing the humble shopper as much as ourselves with an overload of ineradicable data and jargon?

It seems like every day there’s another start-up company or new think-tank that re-invents the retail wheel with yet another concept or strategy.  From the plethora of competing payment methods to new ways of presenting products in store.  When in essence the people we’re all selling to haven’t really changed from those we served before all these clever bells and whistles started dazzling us with their white hot potential.  More often than not I think we’re witnessing the birth of technologies for their own sake.  Answers looking for a questions and solutions looking for a problem.

Blind Alley

In practical terms it’s likely the very people that will be embracing these technologies, the young, may be the very demographic that in the future will have much less disposable income with which to buy all the stuff we throw at them.  If that’s true, I’d say we’re in danger of disappearing up a very dark and potentially rather empty alley in the not too distant future.  At the end of it we may see nothing more than our own hubris blinking back at us.

So let’s not forget the basic tenets of retailing as we launch headlong into this technological Valhalla.  The old aphorisms of customer service and personal interaction are often trotted out at this point in these discussions, and I’m afraid I’m not going to be any more original than that.  But in the final analysis I still maintain that we should only use technology if it enhances those two most basic functions of the humble shopkeep rather than seeking to find replacements for them.

Air_Conditioned_Shoes_Crazy_Inventions-s650x595-337964-580New technologies do of course offer fantastic opportunities, but ultimately we still need to be good retailers with all the same skills and motivations that were needed by that greengrocer back in the 1960s.  New ideas are of course exciting and innovation is always needed to keep our industry moving forward.  But I think we need to be certain that we’re responding to customer aspirations rather than confusing them with unwanted information, interaction or propositions.

Technology has brought us as much pointless gimmickry as it has opportunity, and as someone much cleverer than me once said, just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.   We should driving innovation, rather than being driven by it.

When is a U-Turn not a U-Turn? The Parallel Universe of the BRC

300541Last week’s sudden abandonment by the BRC of calls for a rates freeze came as something of a surprise to most of us, especially those of us who saw a freeze as a compromise anyway.

With business rates increases over the past two years adding over half a billion quid to retailers overheads bills, it didn’t seem too much to ask for government to allow us a bit of breathing space.  Even more so in the face of flatlining high street sales and the erosion of margins by other taxes such as VAT, which have already caused multiple failures this year.

A freeze was never going to be the final solution though.  The growing clamour for a complete revision of local taxation must by now be reaching even the lofty heights of the ivory towers inhabited by the Chancellor and his advisers.  Even so, it seems nothing is to be done to offer a helping hand to retailers.  The closest we’ve come to any direct action on high streets in the last 2 years was planning minister Nick Boles recent proposal that they should effectively be sold off to residential developers and forgotten about.

Now the BRC, an organisation I’d have expected much better of, has not so much blown the idea of a rates freeze out of the water, it’s sent it into orbit!

The reasons for this about-turn, according to Director General Helen Dickinson, is government claims of a potential £1Bn hole in the country’s finances.  This, she says, has led her to see the error of her ways and ally the BRC with the CBI who have been calling for a 2% cap on rates increases, rather than a freeze, for some time now, arguing that this is a more achievable goal in the short term.

Indeed Dickinson came out fighting very soon after the announcement of the BRC’s change of heart, with talk of a ‘step up’ in their campaign over rates reform with a pronouncement that this will be a long term goal.  The obvious disconnect between those two statements didn’t seem to occur to her at the time, or as far as I know, since.

Realistic ideals

Yes it can be argued that in any negotiation there’s little point in holding out for an outcome or a deal that you’re unlikely to be able to achieve.  Asking for the impossible does make you look unreasonable and in some cases faintly ridiculous.  But a freeze was not an unrealistic ideal.  Certainly not if it was applied to retailers only.

The figure of £1Bn loss to the treasury was, it appears, a little over-egged anyway.  The true loss is predicted to be around £840M and that’s only if the freeze was applied across the board to all businesses.  Taking into account rates relief, that figure could be as low as £700M.  But I suppose a figure like £1Billion represents a powerful headline grabbing number, supporting a Treasury polemic that the BRC appears unwilling to challenge.  After all what’s a few hundred million here or there?  Not much it appears, unless you happen to be trying to get the government to reduce the rates burden by a similar amount.

Special Case

In any event, I’d argue that retail is a special case, carrying as it does multiple burdens both in duplication of the charge over multiple locations, and with deference to the amount it contributes in other ways to GDP, not least in terms of employment.  In those circumstances, if the government really wanted to help,  retail could be singled out, thus significantly reducing the overall impact of a freeze.

In fact based on last years increase of £175M, if the reduction was applied to retailers only, it would take something like 5 years before we got close to £1Bn, unless inflation moves drastically northwards.  That’s plenty of time to bring in a new and fairer form of local taxation.

Although I suppose with predictions of next year’s increase running at anything up to £300M it might not take quite so long.  Even a cap at 2% would leave us facing an uplift of around £200M showing just how little would be gained, even if that could be achieved.  Either way the point is an overhaul of the rates system should already be a government priority.  A freeze for a year might sharpen the minds and pencils of those who talk about reform without ever actually doing anything about it, and with potential rates revenue likely to continue declining as many more stores close for good, the need is becoming more urgent every day.

percentageHelen Dickinson herself has acknowledged that :

[a freeze] “wouldn’t be enough to address the significant impact that business rates are having on local jobs, town centres and communities”

Yet somehow she seems to be arguing that a 2% increase would be a better option.  Perhaps that makes sense in some quirky, mathematically challenged, parallel universe, but until the Large Hadron Collider breaks through to a dimension where a 2% increase is better than no increase at all, we may have to file that comment under ‘S’ for Slightly Silly.

Simple ideas like adding ring-fenced increases to VAT or corporation tax might even net a greater income for the exchequer.  But perhaps there’s a hint at what lies behind the BRC’s change of heart.  Would it be outrageously cynical of me to wonder if all those large scale retailers that have the ear of the organisation have just realised that a turnover or profit based taxation system might actually cost them more?  Especially if effective action was taken to reduce tax avoidance schemes at the same time.  Just a thought.

Incredibility

From the comments I’ve received on this move so far it’s done serious damage to the credibility of the BRC, certainly with small businesses.  There’s always been a belief that as a trade body the BRC were rather more concerned with the fortunes of larger retailers, especially supermarkets, than with those of smaller independents.  This wasn’t a view I supported, but this capitulation on one of the most pressing issues on the high street will do nothing to dispel that belief.  The alignment with an institute like the CBI also pretty much puts the lid on any claims that could be made for the BRC being in touch with the grass roots retailers.  That’s all very disappointing, to put it mildly.

Happily though the Federation for Small Businesses does seem to have remained on the side of the little guys and coincidently launched their own campaign for a rates freeze on almost the same day that the BRC backed away from theirs.  I’d urge everyone to sign their petition and get involved with the campaign.

Not a negotiation

And there’s the difference that Helen Dickenson, the BRC and the CBI doesn’t seem to have noticed.  This is a campaign, not a negotiation.  We don’t need to achieve the best result we can by simply asking for what we think we’ll get.  We should be stating a position that is defensible and then fighting for it.  Yes, ridiculous expectations are a waste of energy and resources but we’re not expecting cash handouts to private businesses, jet packs or for Vince Cable to actually bother to research the difficulties that high street retailers face before he makes yet another dismissive speech.

protest-is-beautiful-free-2007This is a about taking a lobbying stance based on principles and fairness in the same way that campaigners have fought down the years to reform other unfair social inequalities.  Small retailers and their staff depend on the high street for a living.  In many ways reforming the inequities of an unfair taxation system is every bit as important as the fight against sex and race equality, or other socially corrosive political stances.  You can’t negotiate those values and aspirations away just try to save face and score an easy win.  Certainly not if you want to remain relevant to the people you claim to represent.

High street decline – Re-task or re-think?

6741713-a-decaying-and-rusty-street-sign-for-a-high-street-representing-commercail-and-retail-in-decline

There’s been much talk  from various quarters about needing to come terms with the idea that the high street is dying.  Bill Grimesy has set this as the starting point in many discussions, and more recently the head of Ocado, Tim Steiner, expounded pretty similar views in a rather unhelpful gush of vitriol to the national press.

The rhetoric characteristically continues along the lines that we’d all better get used to it and deal with the reality.  ‘Dealing with it’ usually involves tacit agreement that shopping malls will be the main destination for consumers of the future and the rest of the slack will be taken up by the direct internet purchases, click and collect and m-commerce.

Ailing high streets, we’re told, will need to re-imagine themselves into areas that will attract people for a variety of reasons rather than just shopping.  Empty retail properties will be re-tasked into other uses, primarily residential.  There’s usually a raft of other ideas that come along in this mix.  Crèches, art galleries, community centres and various other esoteric uses are floated as essential ingredients in a new-age municipal Mecca that will sweep away the tumbleweeds and revitalise areas that people that are staying away from in droves right now.

It’s a view predicated on pragmatism that has some merit.  But I’d ask at what point does pragmatism slip into the realms of defeatism?  I think we’re a long way off from throwing in the towel on the high street, we just need the political will to deal with the underlying problems that have dogged it since investment landlords, property developers and city councillors first crawled out of the primordial slime.

Logical

I don’t argue with the logic of mixed uses in any retail environment, based as it is to a large extent on models already in existence in the shopping centres and mega-malls that are now a ubiquitous part of the UK consumer landscape.  It’s a truism that shoppers don’t just want to shop these days.  They want to drink coffee, browse the internet, have a free makeover or a life-changing experience on a climbing wall.  But with all this already available in the big  retail and recreational cathedrals, one has to wonder why exactly people would return to high streets, even after the proposed transformations are complete.  If all it’s going to take to bring these people back into their local areas is a few new service providers and a community centre, why hasn’t this already been done years ago?

parking_1879549cThe answer lies in the roots of all the problems currently besetting local high streets.  That of high rents, high rates, poor provision of expensive parking facilities, and the lack of a co-ordinated approach to tenant mix and shared space management.  Yes the same boring old issues I’ve been going on about for years, but they haven’t got any less injurious to retailers fortunes with age.

These shortcomings have already been trumpeted by various commentators and pundits, not to mention being detailed chapter and verse in the Portas Review.  It’s likely that Bill Grimesy will cover some or all of this same ground again when his own report is published in a few weeks.

None of this is news, certainly not to those retailers struggling in such areas, or to the landlords faced with empty properties as a result of previous failures.  The answer is to deal with these issues, not just talk about them.  The answer is not to give up on the high street model and dismantle it by stealth.

Small high streets are incubators for fresh retail ideas driven by entrepreneurs with a good idea and not much capital.  The fall in real terms value of commercial property should be a positive benefit in those circumstances, but by and large this is being undermined by landlords and developers who are desperately holding on, waiting for the boom times to return.

Add to this a government equally addicted to milking the high street cash cow through an iniquitous business rates system, and you don’t need to be an economic whizz kid to see why high street property has become toxic.

Re-model Re-task

By making a case for re-tasking or re-modelling empty shops we simply lay the groundwork for landlords and developers who would love to be able to turn empty shops into ‘luxury flats’ or demolish problem locations altogether and start again.  And who could blame them?

imagesBut in doing so we risk losing a valuable resource that we’ll probably never get back.  Stores that right now that could, and should, be let on viable rents to small retailers eager to get a foot on the commercial property ladder.  And I mean on proper long or medium term leases, not the fudgy panacea of the pop-up.

Once these units are gone those opportunities will disappear too.  The large malls aren’t interested in small retailers in the long term, no matter how much they might say they are, and once there’s no other alternative where will independents have left to go?

Yes some small retail units will likely be left in town centres, or included in redevelopments.  But then the reduction in availability will simply serve to support the high aspirations of landlords that have led us down the road we’re currently coming to the end of.  The fact that there are large numbers of empty units being left languishing by landlords and letting agents asking for frankly stupid rents should be seen as a potential resource, not a problem to be erased by sending in yet more deep pocketed developers.

Opportunity knocks

There is an opportunity right now to rescue the situation by forcing landlords back into the real world.  I’ve long advocated imposed rent control and local retail zoning, similar to the systems put in place to deal with down at heel areas in the USA in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  If a property is empty for a certain period of time, local authorities would be able to take over the administration and let the unit on a fair rent.  Landlords would be offered a return on investment at a set level above the current base rate and would of course lose liability for empty business rates.

This would go hand in hand with new planning powers to ensure a sensible tenant mix within given zones, thereby reducing the ‘usual suspect’ nature of small high streets, often populated with the same facades of betting shops, charity shops, coffee bars, mobile phone operators and the like.

atla-rent2-0120I’m all for the free market economy but high street decline is a socio-economic issue that needs to be managed at a local and national government level.  It has knock on effects to the well-being and safety of local citizens and the monetary and social costs associated with those factors.

I’m not averse to seeing retail units turned into other service type uses, but I am very much concerned that once permanent changes are made to retail properties, especially into residential, we’ll see a decline in the small independent sector that will simply strengthen the dominance of  large malls and developments that are far less supportive of those types of operations.

Re-tasking retail into other uses is certainly going to be an interest grabber for politicians and developers keen to make a killing out of empty units in town centres.  But if they also kill off the high street in the process I think they rest of us will all be the poorer for it. As Joni Mitchell once sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”