Our Willy Wonka Chancellor Feeds Us More Fudge On Business Rates

tumblr_mecvlsjTGk1qakh43o8_r1_500

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.

Advertisements

The Undercover Analyst – Luxuriating In Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

Quick off the Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Dimension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a lot of help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Print