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”

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Our Willy Wonka Chancellor Feeds Us More Fudge On Business Rates

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Six and a half years after promising to reform the UK’s arcane business rates system, Chancellor George Osborne announced some sweeping changes at the Conservative Party conference on Monday.

However, instead of a carefully thought out progressive revision of local business taxation, we had yet more fudge from a Willy Wonka chancellor, eager to impress the party faithful with a plan so fiendish even Blackadder would blush at its audacity.

Currently business rates are levied by central government and collected on its behalf by local authorities who then pass the money to the Treasury. A portion of this is subsequently returned to councils to fund local services. This is the process of the Uniform Business Rate system, or UBR, a scheme instigated by Margaret Thatcher, partly with the intention of evening out disparities between richer and poorer areas of the country and re-distributing that wealth more fairly. Yes, even Maggie was a little bit commie on the quiet.

The problem in recent years though has been that rates have sky-rocketed in line with the rental valuations to which they are inexorably tied. The retail boom in the early part of the new century drove landlords to expect more and more returns on property. With large, heavily-leveraged retail chains eager to stump up ridiculous amounts of rent to be in key locations, the market mushroomed.

red_toryConsequently business rates have generated massive piles of wonga for central government and successive chancellors of every hue haven’t exactly been itching to relinquish the embarrassment of riches they’ve had bestowed on them. Indeed in 2012 alone, £350M was added to the rates liabilities of businesses amidst one of the worst recessions on record. During the last parliament the business rates take ballooned by over £1bn and the situation has been further exacerbated by the arbitrary postponement of the regular 5 yearly rating revaluation which should have taken place this year.

Pressure has therefore been mounting on government from businesses and retail campaigners like myself to do something about the damage this system is wreaking on our local high streets. This reached something of a crescendo prior to the general election, when once again the Conservatives promised that improvements would be made, even though they’d singularly dodged the issue throughout the previous five years.

So it was surprising that there was scant mention of rates in the emergency budget cobbled together by Osborne just after The Conservatives shock victory in May. I think I now we see the reason why. He’s obviously confused his party conference with budget day.

Devolution Illusion

Rather than kick this thorny little ball into the long grass for a few more years, Gorgeous George included in his keynote speech the wizard wheeze of passing the problem back to local councils under the guise of localism. The plan is simply to abolish UBR – the one part of the current regime that actually has any merit – and allow councils to hang on to all the money they collect from local businesses, regardless of the disparity that will result.

Apparently eschewing any further rounds of tokenistic consultation with business leaders, he’s neatly avoided central government having to find a solution to the whole soggy mess. In a move that sounds like it was thought up after a particularly good session in the House of Commons bar, he’s dropped the problem into the lap of local councils and walked away. Bang! Sorted!

However, Osborne’s claims about the benefits of his grand idea show just how staggeringly little he understands about the way the system actually works. Something that’s probably a teeny bit worrying coming from our Chancellor, considering we’re talking about a major plank of our national fiscal structure.

Bold Claims

He claims that giving Local authorities the power to reduce rates will help them attract new businesses to the area. In this bold statement he seems to be lamentably ignorant of the fact that councils have had the power to reduce rates since the Localism Act was introduced by his government in 2011. But like so many of these devolution illusions, giving people the ability to do something doesn’t mean they can actually do it.


He’s dropped the problem into the lap of local councils and walked away. Bang! Sorted!


Most councils struggle on the budgets they have already, any decreases in rates payments have to be taken out of that already dwindling sum and so hardly any have availed themselves of their new powers. Sweeping away the last vestige of Thatcherite socialism will only serve to exacerbate these problems, not make things better.

The Chancellor also seems to be unaware of the fact that empty properties still attract a rates liability. Landlords continue to pay rates on voids with only a small amount of relief in the early stages of a vacancy, so there’s little incentive for councils to reduce rates on empty properties. A problem that I once tried to explain to our erstwhile minister for the high street, Grant Shapps, without much success. It appears that obliviousness to the principles of local taxation goes even higher than I thought. Which explains a lot.

SNN2252GXA-620_1791255aRates will therefore continue to be an unavoidable burden weighing particularly heavily on small retailers, especially as, under Osborne’s new scheme, it appears that central government will still be setting the national levy as it does now. I say ‘appears’ as the details seem to be thin on the ground right now. Perhaps George lost the fag packet he wrote them on somewhere between the conference podium and the bar.

There is some talk about a system of re-distributing funds between richer and poorer councils, but again there are not many specifics beyond the idea that city councils who agree to have an elected mayor will be allowed to impose small additional levies for infrastructure projects, again something they can already do now.

There may be some scope for individual councils to adjust liabilities between different types and levels of business, but without the ability to increase rates on others beyond government limits, that will only work in one direction.

Rich and Poor

Well heeled and over-subscribed areas like London’s West End will reap huge rewards from this new regime, hanging on to far more money than they ever received in government grants. But they’ll have little reason to reduce rates liabilities. They will simply, and sensibly, bank the extra cash for a rainy day.

Meanwhile poorer authorities will continue to languish in the doldrums. After all, why would anyone want to set up business in a depressed area that is destined to become even more dilapidated as council budgets are swept away in the dust of the government’s on-the-hoof policy making?

With the balancing principle of the UBR gone, richer areas will become even richer and the poorer even more impoverished. Most councils will probably just hope that the amount they receive in newly retained rates payments will at least offset the amount that will be missing from their government grant. But in the most desperate areas that’s likely to be a forlorn hope. It’s a quid pro quo where the quids will only be going one way.

If nothing else I suppose Osborne has at least affirmed early on in this parliament that we’ll see just as little meaningful progress on local taxation reform as we did during the last. And while he basks in the glory of grand gesture politics and party political back-slapping, it seems our high streets and local services will have to continue to cope with this government’s ignorance and avoidance of the real issues for at least another 5 years. A prospect I doubt many people will find particularly sweet.

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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Phones 4U – The Winners And Losers

phones 4UThe announcement by Phones 4u’s administrator Price Waterhouse Coopers that it is closing 362 of the retailer’s stores permanently really is an appalling outcome for the 1697 store staff who now find themselves out of a job.

I feel very sorry for these people at the sharp end of what seems on the face of it to be a rather sordid tale. I know from speaking to some of the employees that most had absolutely no idea that their jobs were balanced on such a knife edge, and from what I understand from other reports, senior management had little inkling either.

Perhaps they should have had though. Certainly the company’s main investors could have shown a little more sensitivity to the likely outcome of negotiations with the four main carriers when they explained that they weren’t able to offer competitive terms in the face of a mountain of debt that needed to be serviced. Especially as a good deal of that debt was apparently self imposed as a result of some rather creative financial arrangements.

Equally Vodafone and EE should perhaps have considered the impression their actions would give to their own customers when they, fairly unceremoniously, pulled the rug from under a long-term business partner. Perhaps they weren’t prepared for Phones 4U management to take such drastic action. I know I was personally flabbergasted at how easily they appeared to give up the fight when the Vodafone contract had another 6 months left to run and EE’s wasn’t due to expire for a further year.

Most businesses would have kept trading and explored other possibilities, probably including some hasty re-trenching and fence mending with all the carriers. Of course I’m not privy to all the reasons for their decision to go into administration so eagerly, but it seems to me that a business with over a billion pound turnover and profits in excess of £100M might have been worth a little more effort than a press of the nuclear button without further attempts at diplomacy. I’ve certainly seen many much smaller businesses struggle to stay afloat for a lot longer than these guys.

Easy Money

Maybe that’s the problem. For those companies already staked in the game, the mobile phone business has been seen for some time as easy money. The phones and tariffs are laid on by other companies and an obliging public pitches up every time one or the other produces another subtle flavour of hardware or call package that in essence does the same thing as the last, only slightly better. These carefully stage managed increments keep the punters hooked and the cash rolling in. Perhaps when things got a little tougher than that for the board, it’s just wasn’t worth the trouble.

Now the very same carriers that precipitated this situation are reportedly picking off the juicier fruit from the P4U property cherry bowl for their own standalone stores. After an epiphany, undoubtedly born of the internet, they’ve discovered that cutting out the middle men means the money tree just grew a bit taller.

It’ll be interesting to see if tariffs are reduced accordingly now there’s one less bite out of the pie. But somehow I doubt it, especially as most of the carriers have of late been furiously re-writing their contracts in ways that haven’t been particularly advantageous to their customers. And let’s not forget that, with a reduction in competition on the high street, the consumer is going to have less opportunity shop around. As the carriers take more of a direct sales approach, the choice will be limited to service and coverage rather than tariff with fewer independent resellers to stir the pot.

I suppose grabbing the tastier morsels of the Phones 4 U portfolio is a pragmatic move, but it still looks like opportunism born of fancy footwork on their part. In the final analysis the people who have, justifiably or not, pulled the plug are now picking over the bones of a business that previously appeared to be thriving.

A Dream Outcome For Dixons Carphone

Dixons Carphone don’t come out of this smelling like roses either, even though I suppose they can’t be held accountable for the actions of their own suppliers, it does look like a superlative bit of luck on their part that shortly after announcing the closure of 160 Phones 4U concessions in their Currys stores, their main competitor loses all support from their mutual partners. I’m not suggesting there was any collusion involved, but it does seem like the kind of dream outcome that many a rival company would have to pinch themselves hard to believe.

To be fair, Dixons have offered jobs to many of the former concessions staff, which does of course also provide them with a ready made workforce. They’ve also been making efforts to acquire a number of the Phones 4U locations and have been promising jobs for the staff involved in those locations. However it’s understood that the administrators have been less than enthusiastic, so one can only speculate as to the kinds of offers Dixons Carphone are making for the properties. Dixons taking over the stores could of course safeguard of a number of jobs, but they still stand to gain a lot out of the deal themselves.

bad smellThere were undoubtedly a lot of contributory circumstances leading up to this meltdown, but it still leaves a very nasty taste in my mouth and a hell of a stink under my nose. A ludicrous situation and a sad outcome that could have been avoided at so many key points. I only hope all parties concerned, including the P4U investors and management, the carriers, and Dixons Carphone are as uncomfortable about all this as I am.

Although I doubt any of us will be as uncomfortable as the store staff and their families who suddenly find themselves without an income so close to Christmas.

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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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”

Internet Purchase Tax ? Be Careful What You Wish For

Funny_Internet_Tax_Cartoon

Sometimes I’m baffled by the workings of the human mind.  For example, why would a retailer in the UK, already burdened with some of the most onerous and inequitable taxes imaginable, not least business rates, actually propose to the government that they introduce a new one, specifically aimed at retail?

Well it seems that’s exactly what Justin King, the Chief executive of Sainsburys has done.  He’s recently called for an internet purchase tax to be applied in the same way he thinks it’s being applied in the USA.  I say ‘he thinks’ because he seems to have misunderstood the reason this tax is being called for over there.

As I’m sure many of you will know, the US don’t have business rates like we have.  They have local purchase tax, which is often added only at the time of purchase.  Items are priced ‘plus taxes’ which are often variable from state to state and region to region.  Because websites can make sales across state and regional lines, many of them have been charging a different rate of tax to what should be paid in the areas where the purchase was made.  In some cases they haven’t charged the tax at all.

Is this right?  No of course it’s not.  But it has pretty much zip to do with the way retailers pay local taxes in the UK.  In the US they are probably quite right to be considering the Marketplace Fairness Act in order to ensure online retail is contributing to local coffers in the way it should.  Here we pay business rates at a flat rate based on the valuation of the property you occupy.  Internet retailers pay these too for distribution warehouses, offices and the like.

What gets up the nose of many retailers, me included to some extent, is that these companies can be based in locations where local rents and by association, local business rates are lower.  Whereas anyone in a high profile high street location would pay a lot more.  That’s because we pay rates based on notional valuations and not as a tax on revenue.  I’ve gone to some lengths to explain how batty I think this system is, but I don’t think introducing a completely new tax is going to make it any more sane.

Golden Goose

Yes it’s annoying and yes it seems unfair, but in essence it’s not.  Online retailers are still paying rates and taxes, but just not at the same level as a normal retailer.  I agree taxes and overhead costs for bricks an mortar retailers are too expensive, but I don’t agree that we should fix that by making online retail just as ridiculously costly.

That’s not levelling the playing field, that’s digging ourselves into a hole in the middle of the penalty box.

Many online retailers are golden eggalso bricks and mortar operations who already pay a fair share of business rates.  Their online sales may to a large extent be supporting other parts of their business.  Taxing them more isn’t going to improve that situation.  Increased taxation would also have to be passed on to customers, hence neatly strangling the golden goose that may be keeping many parts of the retail industry aloft.

There also seems to be some sort of naïve belief by Justin that ministers will conflate this new tax with business rates and seek to reduce one at the cost of another.  Whereas I don’t have quite the same touching faith in any chancellors spirit of fair play.  Especially not one who’s faced with the biggest book balancing challenge since Margaret Thatcher left charm school.

I’ve been warning about the prospect of an internet purchase tax for the past couple of years.  It’s low hanging fruit that I’m surprised the chancellor hasn’t already started to salivate over.

Governments consistently support the mantra that taxing success should not be the way to go and I largely agree.  Why apply what amounts to a punitive tax on internet based operations rather than reduce the taxation being applied to bricks and mortar?

Yes, retailers in the UK pay far too much tax, well the ones who actually pay tax do,  and certainly far too much in business rates.  But adding to the tax burden elsewhere is not going to solve that problem.  Even if such a tax was sold on the basis of a reduction in business rates across the board, it’ll be a safe bet that pretty soon afterwards that whole relationship will slip into the same grey area that local taxation resides in now.

Sunlit Soccer Net

Leveling The Playing Field?

It’s more likely that an internet purchase tax would be applied in the same way as airport tax, or insurance premium tax.  Just slapped on at a nominal rate which will then be increased gradually in successive budgets.  Pretty soon we’ll just see it as another one life’s certainties, just like any other stealth tax.  We’ll moan but we’ll pay it and maybe a few more businesses will go to the wall.

Moreover any government that introduces such a tax is effectively agreeing with me and many others that applying a flat tax business rate to every other business premises in the country is wrong.  If online retail should pay an overhead tax based on revenue then why not the same for bricks and mortar retailers?

If the conclusion to this debate is a fairer system of local taxation based on ability to pay and it’s applied to ALL retail operations, then I’m all for it.  But I very much doubt there’ll be any change to business rates as they stand now if such a tax were introduced. Maybe I’m just not very trusting of government ministers.  Or maybe I’m less naïve than Justin King.

Either way, let’s stop putting such ideas out there shall we?  After all you have to be careful what you wish for in this life, as sometimes you might just get it.