High-street retailers contribute a significant amount to the UK economy. However, they are now doing so against a backdrop that is far more challenging than a decade ago, competing with 24/7 internet shopping and the significant growth of out-of-town shopping centres. Combine those elements with high business rates, the lack of cheap parking and the increasing number of vacant units and the high street very quickly becomes an unappealing shopping environment. So what can be done to bolster high-street retail?
The first challenge is keeping customers loyal. Retailers have woken up to the fact that they need to give customers the very best in-store experience but, at the same time, embrace digital engagement and keep up with the younger consumers that are driving change. Our strategy at Ann Summers is to build a seamless omnichannel experience, using technology to introduce digital into our stores.
Customers today are also much more conditioned to promotional activity and discounting, which is forcing retailers to buy smarter and leaner. You only have to look at companies like Primark and Lidl; they have been very clever positioning themselves as value retailers where people are proud to shop. Because, ultimately, it’s not about being cheap: it’s about offering value. If we want customers to return to their local high street, then they have to believe it is worth their while, both in terms of value and experience.
So what can the government do? First of all, I fully support the idea of giving local councils responsibility and accountability for business rates. This is a huge opportunity if it grants councils the power to reinvigorate their local high street.
But it’s not just about having power: it’s also about working with retailers. After all, they have the necessary skills and experience of creating an appealing retail environment. Those that are doing it well are market towns like Reigate in Surrey, which have succeeded in creating not just a shopping destination but a leisure destination. Places like these go beyond just shopping; they are attracting families back onto the high street with that real ‘day out’ experience.
Finally, whilst I know this may not be popular with everybody, I personally believe that councils need to be brave and extend opening hours for retailers on Sundays. From a business perspective, it’s a great idea because it gives us a more level playing field with the online retailers that are operating 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s also important to recognise that everybody’s lifestyle is different; you shouldn’t be dictating to families when they can and can’t shop. If we want to drive businesses back to the high street, opening on Sundays and creating that flexibility would be a really big step to making it happen.