Hope for the High Street?

The first six months of 2018 have shaken many retailers, as we see household names such as Toys R Us, Maplin, and Poundworld suffer losses, alongside retail giants like House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer who are radically changing their business model and closing large numbers of stores across the country. Understandably there is great concern about the future of the High Street, but I have a differing opinion to many of the analysts predicting its demise.

I have been in art retail for twenty two years, and for a while I blamed the online shopping culture for how art retail slumped during the recession; more recently though I am noticing some big and potentially positive changes. Our takings have grown year on year, and not fallen. Why? There are many reasons, but one main reason is because we have remained true to what we do.

  • We are primarily an art shop, we haven’t diversified into other fields. Our team of sales staff are artists, and I am also an artist. We are able to provide advice to our customers that they are unable to get from some art chain stores, or online. We do not sell anything that we haven’t personally trialled or used, so all of our recommendations are honest.
  • We reward our customers for shopping with us with loyalty cards, and are huge advocates for the shop local’, and ‘just a card’ campaign. So much so, that we have recently made the decision to close down our online shop due to reduced sales and feedback that our customers prefer to call in to see us!
  • We are more than just a shop: we provide art classes all year round on a variety of subjects, at various times of day, evening, and weekends. We also provide the facility for customers to display their art work, run art competitions, and generally advocate and promote art in the area.
  • We are an active part of the retail and wider community. We have helped to promote the art scene by creating the town’s first community gallery around the corner from our shop, which was initially a pop up shop through the local town team. More recently we have also created the areas first designated art festival where dozens of artists demonstrate their skills whilst selling their products all under on marquee roof.

Community plays a big part in modern retailing, and that is something that many of the large chain stores have forgotten. They have left the town centres in favour of out of town retail parks, they have reduced their stock levels and forced people to shop on their online stores…yet these are the very companies that are beginning to crumble. To me, this shows a business model that fails to see how their consumers are changing opinion on retail. In art retail we are seeing huge changes in our customer base and signs for the future are encouraging.

Who will save the high street?

The younger consumers, those ages 18-25 are in my belief, the hope for the high street. They have grown up only knowing the online world, but now they are adults they are yearning for the social side that the internet doesn’t give. They use Social media such as Instagram and YouTube on a daily basis to see what new things are out there (another plus for those retailers who are using these sites), but then are taking to the high street to buy them in person. They use Facebook less in favour of real interaction. They have brought back Lino printing, calligraphy, and letter writing. Digital photography is being replaced by traditional film and developing techniques, and of course who can forget the surge in vinyl record sales?

Their lack of large income means that many don’t own a car, so out of town shopping isn’t for them. The accessibility of the high street, coupled with its unique independent shops, many whom have years of experience and advice in their field are where these young adults prefer to shop. They enjoy the social side of shopping. They want to be able to meet with friends, share experiences, and gain experiences from those retailers who share the same passion as they do. The have the power to help kick start the high street, as they have a belief in supporting local shops, brands, and goods. They believe in a sustainable future where things are made more locally to cut down on air miles, they want less plastic and more environmentally friendly produced products…all of which points to their own towns.

A retail Renaissance?

I truly believe that we are on the verge of a retail renaissance, the likes of which the high street hasn’t seen since the Victorian age. It may not happen straight away, or all in one go, and perhaps the towns that are keener to adapt will be where it begins, but the foundations are being laid for the rejuvenation of the town as we know it.

  • With more of the unused upper floor retail spaces being turned into living accommodation, we will see a greater number of people living in the town centre, who will also be shopping extremely locally. They will be as dependent on the town centre shops, as the shops are of them. This may mean that we will see supermarkets coming back into main shopping areas, but on a small scale. In fact we are starting to see this with Tesco, Sainsburys, and Morrisons already.
  • Our own shop works because we have remained small enough to function, with enough capacity for growth, and we haven’t grown too big. Also by sharing the building with other retailers and services that are part of the same industry, not only cuts the bills, its adds to the shopping experience. Nowhere else can you call into a building that offers a café, a gallery, an art shop, art classes, tattoo studio, and photography studio! It works, and we may see more retailers and services joining together to cut costs and increase footfall due to what they can provide unitedly.
  • We may too begin to see the once large retail giants opening smaller high street branches with their best selling items and click and collect feature to link with their online presence. Shopping small and supporting your own local economy is an ever growing message that is being heard, so I believe the big stores will begin to see the value in their own town centres where their stores are based.

What can retailers do?

When the recession hit, experts were constantly telling retailers that they needed to adapt – but nobody anywhere was explaining how, and we were left to muddle along. Here are a few ways I have found that helps:

  • Utilise all forms of social media – Facebook and Twitter are great, but if you are in a visual industry (which most retail is), then Instagram and YouTube should not be overlooked. Social media is a virtual shop window and can attract a lot of people if you do it well. Don’t go for the hard sell as it rarely works – use it to post photographs and videos of things you find interesting, engage with your flowers, interact and ask questions. Use live video to showcase your skills, do Q&As about products – how your customer base what makes you unique and better from the rest. Find fun ways of subtly promoting your products without actually posting a photo with a price.
  • Spend time making sure you can be found! With the growing trend of hubs in the home, or smart phone technology where people ask Cortana/Siri/Google for recipe ideas and fashion advice, they also ask where their nearest shops are. Each search engine uses different means for gathering information, so make sure your details are correct on Yelp, applemapsconnect, Google (which includes Google My Business), and get the Google My Business app to get yourself a great profile boost.
  • Remember what made you enjoy independent shops when you were younger – was it their quirkiness, their hand written price labels etc, and concentrate on recreating it for your own shop. I learned the hard way not to make my shop look too much like a large chainstore as it doesn’t attract a strong customer base. Focus on your individuality – you are an independent after all!
  • Stick to what you know and don’t diversify too much. Become an ambassador of what you sell, and resist the temptation to copy other retailers in your town who have successful ideas, as it only dilutes the customer pool. Create new ideas, displays, or shop windows. Become leaders in your field and stand out.
  • Talk to your suppliers – many suppliers trawl social media looking for brand ambassadors where they can send samples of their products to. They tend to look for those who have a good social media following and who do product video, but they often overlook the companies that sell their products! Chat with them and ask for samples that you can do a Facebook video on to show how that product works etc.

Survival rate

In short, I truly believe the high street will survive, and it will change a little. Working together as retail communities to support and promote each other is the best way; but also as customers – write reviews for shops that you enjoy going to, tell your friends by sharing their social media posts. I think the most important thing is to have faith that the high street won’t die. It has been there since the Viking age, and it will always be here. Gone are the days of standing at your till and hoping for customers though. Retailers need to be far more proactive, and utilise all forms of promoting themselves. It can be so easy to become jaded and apathetic when low sales or quiet days happen – but those quiet times are the best times to update your social media.