I’ve been listening to a local debate about the “state” of our high street for many, many months now. Years in fact.
It all came to a head recently with the particularly sad closure of the town’s only independent department store. A store I remember visiting as a child, enchanted by its slightly quirky wonky stairs that sort of went down as you went up. A store I regularly shopped in as an adult, guaranteed quality and good value for money.
But the customers stopped buying enough to keep it going. So it closed its doors, to much dismay.
Now retailers across the city are calling for action. Summits have been arranged, the turnout into the hundreds – no small feat for a small city. The arguments abound for what needs to be done and in a recent editorial by the local newspaper editor, it’s clear that some of the ideas for improvement are deeply entrenched in what worked well 50 years ago.
So here’s the thing – and we’re going to need to admit this if we want to get past it, at the root of the problem, it’s all the customer’s fault.
These customers can’t park or don’t want to pay to park.
These customers don’t shop when we’re open, they use the internet.
These customers go to supermarkets and buy things there instead.
These customers want things cheap so they buy it elsewhere.
Want to know how to “fix the high street” look to the customer.
The editor of the local newspaper The Perthshire Advertiser, Alison Lowson, puts it succinctly: “Quirky opening hours don’t cut it with modern shoppers who have come to expect late-night opening on a Thursday and all-day shopping on a Sunday.”
Eight years ago we were comfortably able to blame the economy and the banks for the poor performance of the high street. Now, when we can no longer just blame the recession, there’s a prevailing myth that if we just wind back the clock and make the parking free, the customers will return in their droves.
Retail used to be the primary method of distributing goods into the hands of the consumer. It was efficient, it was effective and it has stood the test of time.
But people haven’t stopped shopping, they just shop differently now.
Got to admit, I’m a busy lady and my ideal time for shopping is at 8.30pm in the evening in front of the telly. I can order online and it will be delivered the very next day. No fuss, no inconvenience and no problem.
So, while this may be an unpopular opinion, I’m going to say it out loud: there is a distinct possibility that retailers have got it all wrong.
Retail opening times are positively last century, their foundations set in the 1950s Shop Act, when almost half the adult population were not in full time employment and there was plenty call on shopping as a daytime activity. Fine doing nine til five if you have a thriving in town office community to entertain between 12 and 2 every day, but if no such community exists, open late! Most people now work out of town, and finish at 5. Nip in to Tesco between 5 and 8 and you’ll see them loading their trolleys with books, DVDs, cookware, clothes and, oh, a loaf of bread.Whether a necessity or a leisurely luxury, shops need to open when people have the time to get to them, not when they don’t. And, I expect if you asked half the customers why they were shopping there at that time of night, they would respond with an answer along the lines of “I needed to get X for tomorrow and Tesco/Morrisons/Sainsburys was the only place open at this time of night that would sell it.” In many respects they will shop there, not because they want to, but because they can. Supermarkets are therefore not the cause of the problem, but are providing a solution to customers when independent retailers have closed their doors for the day.
A brief spell living in Italy taught me that in the afternoon it was far more convenient to have a nap (so the shops shut) and the evening shopping rush between 4pm and 9pm was, literally, heaving. People had finished worked, schools were out, and everyone was in town.
Supermarkets get this. It’s not so much about free parking, also conveniently situated, but more to do with convenient opening times. As a result they have won our loyalty and now (broadly) represent one of the very few places remaining that you can buy books, toys, DVDs, homewares as well as food, while in the last decade alone the high street has waved goodbye to Borders, HMV, Virgin Megastores and numerous independent retailers. And, as much as I hate to say it, clothes shops will be the next great “victim” to this shift in purchasing patterns.
Perth, the city in which I work and live, is determined to develop its night-time economy. Perhaps the re-shaping of the retail offering to skirt this night time economy may be the catalyst to change the city and the fortunes of its independent retailers once and for all.
But, first, we probably need to stop blaming the customer and start looking at what they want, what they really, really want.