A Modest Proposal for the High Street

Image: eshop.verodesign.sk

On the 30th August, 2014, following an exasperating afternoon’s shopping in Oxford (but it could have been in almost any British High Street), I wrote the following on Facebook:

“Dear Debenhams, might I suggest you remember a thing or two about the business you are in? The point of a department store is that it offers wide choice and quality service. That way, customers get to have an enjoyable experience and buy lots of stuff.

“You, however, seem to think it appropriate to operate a largely self-service menswear department. That might be fine if you didn’t apparently also have a policy of not putting prices on any of your shoes; compounded by the staff member in that department suggesting that I could find out the price of the shoes I was interested in when I went to the till!

“I heard him tell another customer that it wasn’t possible to find out whether her local store stocked a particular item. Hadn’t he heard of the telephone? In fairness, as staff members were as rare as hens’ teeth he probably felt he didn’t have time to make the call.  Apart from him there was a totally disinterested young lady on the till, who, far from thanking me for spending an hour largely serving myself and then in effect paying her wages, avoided meeting my eye at any point.

“Not that this state of affairs is exclusive to Debenhams; Jones the Bootmaker had employed a member of staff to lock potential customers OUT, five minutes before the advertised closing time. The sheer disdain for customers that is demonstrated by so many retailers is both breathtaking and baffling.

“Recently, by contrast, I went into a Ted Baker store to browse and emerged half an hour later having bought a suit, and blown away by the skilful and attentive service that converted me.

“I could go on! The image of an enormous sales floor, almost bereft of staff, and on a Saturday of all days, may not be unusual but it is, and always will be, daft. The recession’s over, Debenhams, Jones and the rest! Staff up and make hay!!!”

Enough said perhaps! I should however add that I Tweeted the above lament to both Debenhams and Jones – and received a predictably underwhelming response.

I was reminded of this episode whilst reading an account of the Royal Society for Public Health’s  Health on the High Street campaign and accompanying report: the gist of it being that health improvement could be an integral part of reinventing our High Streets.  Whereas the High Street in almost any town should be a focal point for social interaction and cohesion, the report points out that many feature a proliferation of “fast food takeaways, betting shops and payday loan shops” – all of which it describes as potentially injurious to public health.  The RSPH calls for a statutory limit on so-called “unhealthy” businesses, the removal of checkout confectionery displays and the introduction of prominently-displayed health warnings and nutritional advice.

It seems to me that these recommendations address just one aspect of what is wrong with the High Street.  For example, coffee shops, pound shops, charity shops and clothing retailers (at various price levels) also tend to dominate, and I’m not sure how many of these pose a risk to public health.  The “Clone Town” syndrome is well documented; as are the challenges of high rents, business rates, parking issues, and competition from out-of-town retail parks, e-commerce and endless leisure alternatives: the Portas Review documented them in 2011, making 28 recommendations to reinvent and rescue the High Street.  Nonetheless, and despite the setting up of 12 “Portas Pilots” to show how it could be done, it still feels like a fairly hopeless situation.

To end on a positive note – what, then, is to be done?  Practically speaking, perhaps 28 is too big a set of recommendations: perhaps we (and by “we” I mean, everyone involved in our Retailing industry) should start where I started this post, with ONE action point – with not so much a reinvention, as a rediscovery, of SERVICE.  All surveys show that service is the key to profitable, long-term customer relationships – so why is service so uniformly mediocre-to-dire in our High Streets?  In my next post I will expand on this theme – how by “simply” adopting an ethos of genuinely, jaw-droppingly, legendary service, I believe our  Retailers (large and small) could start the process of fundamental and profound renewal of our High Streets.  Tomorrow!

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