Opinion

Retailers should take business to their customers to ensure survival

4 min read

29 May 2018

As the retail industry takes another body blow with planned store closures at high street cornerstone Marks & Spencer, and after Homebase was flogged for a quid, there doesn’t seem much motivation to open a business with a shop front anymore.

The migration from footfall to click-through shopping, along with high business rates continuing to cripple many independent store-based retailers, are also playing a part in the demise of town centres.

But there are some out there that have taken a different route to get their businesses going. And that’s by taking it to the customer on four wheels.

What got me thinking about this was a project we are supporting at Pimlico called ‘Let’s Get Owen Going’ for a charity called First Step Trust.

They are resurrecting a dilapidated 1969 Renault Estafette van, affectionately nicknamed Owen, which the charity is converting into a mobile barista coffee shop and photo booth that can be set up on the street or at events.

We’ve helped with some respraying of the van’s bodywork by our in-house mechanics and I’ve gone back ‘on the tools’ to give them a hand a couple of times in their workshop.

We got involved a couple of years ago and I was blown away by the great work the charity does, giving employment and training opportunities through its social enterprises to people who have unfortunately been excluded because of mental health or other disadvantages.

And the ‘Mohammad’ and ‘Mountain’ concept of taking Owen out to sell coffee is a great way to generate income, and one that others are following by ‘taking the wheel’ to drive towards business success.

One of Britain’s great entrepreneurs, Sir John Timpson, the head of the national chain of shoe repair companies, makes a good point in the shop-versus-internet debate. He suggests that the stores that survive are those that provide a service that doesn’t work on line.

Cutting keys and repairing shoes are two of them, and he has talked about opening barber pods alongside his stores that are located in supermarkets across the country because, after all, you can’t get your barnet trimmed on the web!

That might provide some inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs who could choose using a vehicle over taking premises to get their business going.

It’s also often been said that the way to win the retail battle with the internet is to give customers a unique experience. So, sticking a quirky book shop in the back of a Ford Transit, or a nail bar in a VW camper, and taking the business to where the trade is might be the answer.

From music festivals to country fayres, charity events to exhibitions and conferences, there are so many places where potential customers congregate. And that’s not to mention the thousands of out of town business parks up and down the country, which pretty much have a captive audience during the working day.

Of course, I can count Pimlico Plumbers among these businesses, as we take our services to customers by van. After all, it would be a bit tricky transporting pipes and tools on the London Underground.

And, I know that a lot of UK roads are not in the best shape, and traffic is a constant problem, but no business comes without its challenges.

That said, British entrepreneurs love to overcome adversity by taking a fresh approach to traditional opportunities and go out in search of places to win business.

Norman Tebbit might have said ‘get on your bike’ to find work, but perhaps, instead, there is something in getting behind the wheel to get a business motoring!