People love good shops. It might not be cool to admit it, but watching the hordes of people flocking after each and every lockdown to their local high-street is testament to this being true. While online shopping has seen record growth over the past year, nearly £7 in every £10 is still spent offline. According to the UK Government’s Office of National Statistics internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales (ratio) (%) hit a record 36% in November 2020. Online had been growing steadily towards 20% of total retail sales, but, thanks to lockdowns and the COVID outbreak, it has leapt to above 30%. But, eventually the growth with slow and then will plateau. So, where is the optimism around physical retail?
Left - Do we need a national campaign to remind people how good shops can be?
It sometimes feels like, come results days, retail CEO after retail CEO laments their store networks like it’s a problem they have to deal with, and the press report accordingly. Describe like a millstone around their necks, where are the ones standing up and saying, ‘We love our shops and staff’ and really give them the backing they need and deserve? It’s like they’ve capitulated to online, held their hands up and just surrendered. All shops, big and small, need a ‘We (Heart) Shops’ campaign. Good shops, independents or chains, will never be dead and there is still lots to play for, particularly post-COVID.
Eric Musgrave, fashion industry commentator and former editor of Drapers, says “I cannot fathom how anyone could organise a comprehensive campaign to make people or encourage people to use shops. This is better done at local level.”
Musgrave cites campaigns such as ‘Independents Day’, ‘Save The High Street’ and ‘Small Business Saturday’, but many of these were very much slanted towards the David (Small Independents) against the Goliath of large national chain stores. What has changed is these both need to team up and work against online TOGETHER.
“Shops appear in many different locations, from the traditional city or town centre high street, to covered shopping centres within those settlements, and then on purpose-built out-of-town sites. All have different challenges.” he says. “The one under most pressure, I suppose, is the traditional high street, but as a nation we are over-shopped – in many sectors we have too many physical retailers before we start considering the effect of online sellers. There is not enough money in the UK for all these retailers to prosper or even survive.
“I sincerely believe shops will survive, but how and where will end up being hundreds and thousands of local stories. I believe we as humans are social creatures and shopping is a social activity. I want to examine something closely before I buy it – clothes obviously, but also books or electrical equipment. When I want to buy a power screwdriver, for example, I want to talk face-to-face to someone who knows about them, which is why the local hardware store or Homebase is vital.”
While we don’t like to admit it, shopping is part of our culture. It’s not just about acquiring stuff in the most efficient way. It’s about socialising, history, tradition and feeling inspired. It’s about something as simple as leaving the house. Browsing in real and browsing online are two vastly different experiences.
It feels a mistake for a large, national chain like John Lewis & Partners to have the ambition to become a 60%-70% online retailer by 2025. Their shops really should be their best asset. They should look to balance and grow both avenues of their sales.
Yvonne Courtney, Founder, CollageLondon, a bespoke clothing label, says, “People do still love shops, as they offer an alternative sanctuary – for fantasy, serendipity and surprise!
“The trouble began when chain stores mushroomed across the country, pushing out independents due to opportunist landlords, and making every high street the same. Then they were highjacked by ruthless equity funds who asset stripped their property estates and under invested in the brands, making their stores completely joyless places. Everything is cyclic however, and the return of the independent is being much hailed!” she says. “However this will necessitate landlords taking a reality pill, to reset rents to realistic levels after 20+ years of upwards only extortion!”
Musgrave says, “The economics of running a shop in the UK is very expensive. I do not see any prospect of this government or any government abolishing the business rates system because it brings in so much money. In the post-COVID-19 world, the government will want as much money as it can get.
“Related to finance is the apparent need of local councils to use parking as a revenue stream. BIRA (the British Independent Retailers Association) has had parking charges on its action list for years. Why drive to a town centre to pay over the odds or risk getting a ticket when you can park for free at an out-of-town complex?” he says.
Why do we need a 'We Love Shops' campaign?
It worked wonders for New York back in the 1970s,” says Courtney. “Paid for by their tourism board, it makes millions every year from merchandise sales. Not only is this perfect timing, during/post Covid, but also with the onset of Brexit - shopping local will be the way to go.” she says.
“A ‘We Love Shops' campaign would give a sense of pride, hope and belonging to communities everywhere. We have such a wealth of history in the world of shops, it would be a crying shame if this disappeared.
“Surely it’s everyone’s interest to keep shops in business, given that online platforms avoid paying full taxes, so reducing coffers for education, health, etc. If brands are talking down shops, I think this is an attempt to veil their laziness/ineptitude for evolving. So many stores come across as being on autopilot, under investing/appreciating their staff and making the whole experience pretty poor.” says Courtney.
“It’s too easy to blame online retail (or COVID) for a shop’s demise - when we know that they’ve either been under invested in or have simply not upped their game in what they are offering.” she says.
We’ve had the best of both worlds over the last few years; being able to browse offline and ordering online, but the balance is swinging and with fewer shops will this wake consumers up to appreciate what is left more? In exclusive TheIndustry.fashion data, when we asked consumers the question about where do you most prefer to shop for clothes, 51% (pretty consistently month-on-month) say physical shops. Yes, they can’t go to them now, but that doesn’t mean to say they won’t when it’s possible.
So, what makes a great shop?
“The recipe has to be product, people and location. Just as people will drive a long way to a decent pub or restaurant, so they will travel to find an interesting shop that satisfies their needs. Conversely, a lot of shops should prosper because they are very close by their target audience.” says Musgrave.
“A great shop is somewhere that draws you in with its shopfront or window display…or somewhere off the beaten track - making it a destination in itself. Somewhere you might not come across online…somewhere that encourages browsing, or even a bit of rummaging (so many stores are over-curated now, leading to same-y displays of merchandise, objects and plants - yawn!) Somewhere where you might get into an unexpected conversation.” says Courtney.
“I myself am looking to open a ‘multi-purpose atelier’ for my CollageLondon label that will also offer a repurposing clothing clinic and mini kiosk of ‘covetables’. Physical shopping has the potential to boom once we've seen the back of Covid as people will yearn that sense of discovery!” says Courtney.
“I suspect there will soon be a backlash against the environmental damage caused by thousands of vans driving around delivering e-commerce parcels. I wonder if anyone has yet measured the difference between, say, 100 people going to a John Lewis store and JL sending out 100 parcels to individual addresses.” says Musgrave.
“I like talking to experts in shops, either sharing knowledge if I know about the subject or learning something new and getting advice if I don’t. Long live shops.” says Musgrave.
This pandemic has ignited a passion for physical retail among young consumers. They were the most enthusiastic online shoppers, but now that’s older consumers as they are afraid to go out and have been introduced to the joys of e-commerce. Older consumers will stick with e-commerce now they’ve discovered it and youngsters will be desperate for human connection and experience. That is a good thing long term. It’s the experience of stores that people have that makes them special, and just seeing them as an expensive overhead misses that point completely.
For the good retail stores remaining, it’s okay for us to say out loud, “We Heart Shops”.
Below - Office for National Statistics Graph showing percentage of total retail sales online
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