Alison Cork is an entrepreneur specialising in home interiors, and a television presenter. She was among those shortlisted to be the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London.
Far from being paved with gold, the shopping streets of London currently tell a tale of retail woe. Empty units, an unhealthy balance (literally) of fast food outlets, and most depressingly for me, a lack of spark and originality in the brands on offer. High street retail should be an exciting process of discovery and consumer courtship, but more often than not it is now a repetitive and uninspiring affair.
Rent, rates and online retail are normally quoted as the reasons for this malaise, all of which play their part, but I don’t feel that this paints a wholly balanced picture.
All businesses have to face competition, whether they are online or physical retail, and to say that online retail should pay supplementary taxes to counteract their supposed advantage seems a counter-intuitive way to deal with the problem (I’m not referring here to the well known behemoths of online retail who seem particularly adept at paying tiny amounts of tax – this should definitely be addressed). I’m saying that we should be looking positively to reinvent the high street, rather than penalizing online shopping, which appears to be succeeding in serving up speed and convenience to the consumer.
Part of the solution I feel lies in how we use physical retail space and the way in which increasingly we spend our leisure time. Shopping is now less about the mechanics of purchasing an item at the till and carrying it home, and more about having an enjoyable leisure experience discovering new product and services, whilst relaxing and socializing. Physical retail needs to respond to this, particularly the large stores which have such enormous overheads and considerable square footage to monetize.
A few years ago my own homeward brand won a retail competition to run a concession in House of Fraser on Oxford Street for two weeks. Whilst it was a great opportunity and one we hugely enjoyed, I remember feeling a deep sense of foreboding that there were many days when the sales staff seemed to outnumber the customers passing through, and I could only wonder at the electricity bill. Fast forward a few years and we know what happened to HoF. And they are not alone, retail profit warnings generally recently reached a seven-year high, so something needs to be done and quickly.
However, I do believe that large stores could reinvent themselves and provide the lifestyle experience people now want. Increasingly we are working for ourselves, demanding flexible working hours and arrangements, and wanting low overhead workspace, hence the growing success of shared workspace businesses such as Wework.
Why not combine this demand with the more fluid lifestyle people now lead, and build more co-working spaces into large retail units? Places like Pret A Manger already double as mobile offices for many people, but this would be taking the concept to its next logical step and providing a more comprehensive yet still flexible workspace. It would also facilitate networking amongst the self-employed, something I know to be very important from the work we do at Make It Your Business. This approach could also be adapted to help the elderly, providing a more formal place to meet people and socialise, counteracting another big challenge – that of modern-day loneliness.
Add in a bigger choice of eateries, other services such as child care, fun interactive brand experiences harnessing technology and efficient, cost-effective home delivery of purchases (so we can continue our retail experience hands free so to speak) and the overall result might be that we spend more time exposed to the retail proposition and end up spending more. All of a sudden, House of Fraser sounds a bit more interesting and relevant to our everyday needs and changing work/life habits. Physical retail needs to become multi functioning and go beyond its somewhat linear offering.
This is perhaps a solution for the larger stores, but what is the solution to my other point about wanting retail to be a journey of discovery of new product and brands? I think it lies in the other type of shopping street we have in London, the traditional high street of what is often 20th century construct, a parade of shops with retail outlets on the ground floor and more often than not, offices on the first floor and above.
Currently, the ground floor typically would be classified as retail, as it has a street frontage, but it is this very advantage which makes it expensive and beyond the reach of many new and more niche retailers. Why don’t we amend or allow more flexibility around our building classification to allow first floor and above also to be divided into smaller retail units (as opposed to office units), which could give rise to a honeycomb of exciting, new and niche brands getting the high street exposure they need. It would also give back the consumer that sense of discovery, originality and authenticity that I think they crave and miss. Take a walk down somewhere like South Molton Street and imagine how much more enticing it would be if every building was three floors of retail discovery. I know I’d be there like a shot.
London has the potential to be the best retail destination in the world. We certainly have the creative spirit to deliver on that. Let’s match that with some creative retail thinking and policy making.