Interviews

Big is no longer beautiful amongst high street retailers

4 min read

26 March 2018

With old lumbering dinosaurs of UK retail dying out at quickening rates to be replaced by online-savvy brands, Charlie Mullins asks if we're experiencing the death of the high street?

Any entrepreneur will tell you that a business that stands still is in fact going backwards. And every step backwards is an inch closer to the business graveyard littered with tombstones of companies like Woolworths, or MFI.

These types of businesses, which were mainstays of the high street and as such seen as indestructible, were in fact among the most vulnerable due to their inability to adapt and keep up with the needs of customers.

Big may be beautiful, but massive has proved to be unsustainable in many cases. And the lessons haven’t been learned. Week after week a different high street name is being picked off by a financial sniper perched on top of a pile of dwindling profits.

In the last few days we’ve heard that Carpetright is set to close stores, Moss Bros issued a stark profits warning, B&Q reported falling sales, Mothercare remains in talks with bankers and New Look’s creditors agreed in a vote that the struggling fashion store needs to trim down the size of the business.

And at the end of last week, high street fashion cornerstone Next posted an 8.1per cent fall in annual pre-tax profits for 2017 and warned that this year would also be challenging.

It admitted that it has made some self-inflicted product range errors and omissions, and perhaps, in that admission it knows what it has to do to improve.

While other businesses that have since turned to dust because they failed to adapt, perhaps Next will prove to be the exception to the rule?

Of course, it is in the hands of their customers, ultimately, who have the power of natural selection in the consumer market and can choose who can evolve and who can become instinct.

The public want choice, the right price, the best possible service and convenience.  Sometimes all those boxes can be ticked by online retailers who can satisfy their customers with a few photos of an item, a short description and free next day delivery.

However, on other occasions it’s the level of personal service, advice and expertise the customer craves.

And if this is the case, perhaps the death of the high street has been greatly exaggerated. The lumbering dinosaurs are dying out to be replaced by a more agile and nimble breed of retailers that can meet the needs of the public.

While SMEs have quickly embraced the benefits of trading online, there are a growing number that supplement their internet activities with shop-front sales where customers can benefit from the knowledge and expertise of business owners and their staff.

This is an opportunity that local councils should grasp with both hands and make it more attractive and welcoming for smaller retailers to establish themselves, and ultimately grow on the high street.

For every £10 spent with a local SME, up to an additional £50 goes back into the local economy. For cash-strapped councils, that should be motivation enough to back their entrepreneurial retailers.

If shoppers want to use massive companies like Amazon, then they can pick up their laptop and click away. However, to make a purchase where the service and experience are as important as the product, they can head to a high street that’s been updated for the twenty-first century.

Here, the deadwood of retail has been washed away and replaced with a new generation of retailers that can thrive in a world where digital and personal purchases can live side by side in harmony.