Longtime collaborator Michael Weedon gives us his view on the future of the high street in the current climate
If there is one gift we would all love right now it’s the gift of certainty.
What businesses of all types are asking is how they can prepare for and survive any more general shutdown – because they have no real way of knowing how long this disruption is going to persist.
Oddly, while some retailers are desperate for footfall, others are rushed off their feet. The busy shops are not necessarily the ones you would expect – supermarkets – but hardware stores and DIY specialists in my locality are seeing sustained levels of high demand.
Our award-winning local cookshop is offering home delivery. My local gift shop saw sporadic peaks of demand in advance of Mother’s Day, interspersed with hours of nothing at all happening. At the same time the floristry side of the business is booming for mothering Sunday. But the sales there are not coming from walk-ins, they are predominantly coming from phone calls and social media messages.
This is one of the most noticeable aspects of the current crisis – retailers and service providers are getting creative with their service. Our local wine merchant announced that they will deliver, free locally, pushing out the message through facebook and they have just handed over a case of wine to me at home. Needing flour from our nearby bakery for the sourdough bread I bake, I ordered by phone. The government announced this week that cafes, restaurants and pubs could start to offer take-away and delivery with temporary changes to planning rules, but as far as I can see all of our local providers had already got on and done this. I don’t think they even considered asking for permission.
They don’t have a choice. While the government can pull the levers it has to hand, such as deferring taxes, suspending business rates and other cost control measures, that will not help put money in the till to pay staff and rent and buy stock. As part of the lobbying which I’m involved with the FSB we have proposed exactly that. Businesses need cash right now and they need it continuously – because when all of this is over we need as many of those businesses as possible to continue trading.
So retailers are putting themselves out there, especially on social media, and that will change the way we do business for good. Consumers are engaging online in volumes that they never have before – supermarkets in particular are maxed out on delivery slots for weeks and in some cases months – and those first steps will lead to others. Making new habits begins with small changes in behaviour.
Both customers and retailers are making changes right now that will have permanent effects on the way we shop. Those changes will be become more entrenched as the dislocation goes on, but one thing we can be certain about is that it will, eventually, pass. The health and survival of businesses demands imaginative, creative thinking – and action – now.
Endnote: I mentioned my involvement with the FSB, and the GA are always very nice about letting me do so. The FSB has some excellent resources, freely available to anybody, on its website. You’ll find it front and centre on the home page at www.fsb.org.uk.
Michael Weedon has been studying and commenting on the retail industry for several decades. He has combined trade association directorships with trade magazine publishing and journalism, with media appearances and active lobbying. He now combines his own research business, as managing director of Exp2, with the role of Chair for the Federation of Small Businesses’ Retail & High Streets policy unit. His key aim is to seek the truth beneath the headlines – and then make better headlines. Of the long running High Street story he says “There is room for gloom – but even more room for optimism.”