Why the High Street is an outdated paradigm – and it’s up to marketers to fix it

High Street footfall figures falling. Major retailers turning over £millions going into administration. A public not spending unnecessary money.

Sounds familiar?

This is the story up and down the UK at the moment, with some commentators predicting a loss of 40% of High Street retail outlets in the next few years.

Perhaps it’s up to marketers to solve the puzzle.  Here’s some thinking to get you started.

OK, omnipotent as those of us in the marketing industry are, we can’t do anything about the British weather (rain is being blamed for keeping people away from the shops).  And, on a macro-scale, we can’t do anything about the double-dipper we’re currently plunging into like the log flume at Chessington.

However, there’s one area where we can add significant value – overall business strategy.  And I say we start with the basic paradigm of the High Street.

Let me ask you a question:  When is the High Street open for you to spend your money in?

There are 168 hours in a week.

Of these, High Street shops are open for around 56 of these (0900 – 1730 each day, 0900 – 1730 on a Saturday and, if you’re extremely lucky, 1100 – 1600 on a Sunday).

Within these 56 hours, individuals (like myself) who work for a living can access the glories of our local High Streets for a maximum of 19 hours (1 hour at lunchtime IF we work in a town, 0900 – 1730 Saturday and 1100 – 1600 on a Sunday).  This is if we have nothing else to do (like pay bills, go to meetings, sort the kids out etc) and aren’t following the UK trend of working longer and longer, often missing lunch breaks.

Can you think of any other destination which is so completely and utterly unavailable to the majority of the working public?

As marketers, we need to make our customers’ lives easier by being in the right place, at the right time and with the right offer (product) to maximise their proclivity to purchase. 

We also know from research, that less stressed customers buy more than stressed ones.

Put these two things together.

High Streets aren’t available at the right time.  When I finish work at 5pm, can I get into the stores before they close?  If I can, have I got more than 30 minutes (less if I have to find somewhere to park, in the rush hour) to browse and complete my purchases?

High Streets are stressful.  Go anywhere on a Saturday morning and you’ll fight to park, dodge screaming children around the stores, wait in line for ages.

Frankly, it’s easier and more preferable to shop in your pants while sipping a coffee and reclining on your sofa, balancing a laptop on your knees.

What we need to do is change the paradigm and move High Streets into the 21st Century.

We need to shift the retail tactics to a model which is more centred around the consumer buying stuff than the business selling stuff (it’s a very important difference).

Shops should open later in the morning and close later in the evening.  Toronto was a superb example of this – even HMV didn’t open until 10am, but then the doors didn’t shut until 7pm or later – every day.  This meant that workers could drift around stores in the evenings, drip-feeding their shopping habits throughout the week rather than trying to cram it all in to the weekend (along with everybody else).

Retailers need to take a long, hard look at the Sunday Trading Laws, and decide if they want to challenge the Government over them.

As a consumer, I want something when I want it.  If it’s available on the High Street and I can get there in one of my 18 allotted hours (which is actually 13 because I can’t get to a major centre in my lunch break), I’ll buy it there.  If the store is shut, I’ll go to Tesco or buy online.

We need to embrace scan and scram.  We’re not going to change this trend (unless we trade on price alone).  So we need to work with our retail centres to improve the free WiFi provision (and not BT OpenZone.  That’s not free access) in our High Streets and work with retailers to ensure that their websites are up to date, accessible from mobile devices and ecommerce enabled.

Finally, we need to deliver an experience.  High Street shopping isn’t a great experience at the moment.  Stressed people, unavailable stores, empty shops – it can be pretty damn depressing.  We, marketers, need to look at our local offerings, work with the communities to uncover their local cultures and suffuse the High Street with reasons for shoppers to visit.  Give them something to remember, not an indenti-kit offering.

Why is this up to marketers?

Simple.  We should have strategic oversight and tactical specialisms to make this happen.  We should understand people. We should be able to understand place.  We should be able to influence strategy and produce a great tactical campaign at the other end.

We’re not retailers. But we don’t need to be.  Retailers need to retail to the people on the street.  We should be getting them there in the first place.

Fixing the UK’s High Streets won’t be easy.  But by taking a long, hard look at their purpose and relationship to the spending public, we can start to build a model that works for business, delivers profits for retailers and delivers a less stressful experience for the consumer.

Have you got any experience in working for the betterment of local High Streets and retail offerings?  If so, I would love to hear from you – so please, comment below!

Neil Hopkins is a Marketing and Branding Theorist at heart, and a Marketing Communications Manager by day. His blog – interacter – is the primary location he shares insight and information relating to marketing, branding and advertising strategy.
You can follow Neil on Twitter, circle him (like an escaped bull) on Google+ or track him down in any number of other ways.

Image for this post comes from madam3181’s Flickr Photo Stream and used under Creative Commons


3 thoughts on “Why the High Street is an outdated paradigm – and it’s up to marketers to fix it

  1. Answering this could fill a book … it certainly filled the Portas Report and that only touches on some of the key points, so I’ll stay brief and focus on some lesser covered points:


    Read the Experience Economy by Pine and Gilmore. You need to provide an experience, this doesn’t start the second customers walk through the door, but from the second they think about a need (even before the purchase). How do you become a first choice destination? What makes your shop better than others? Why should they not buy online? If they do want to buy online, how can you capture this revenue? Are you the first place they look for advice? Do they trust you? When they visit you, do you know them? Do you incentivise them? … Break down the retail experience and start to address core weaknesses. Be prepared to invest in what matters. Speak to marketers to help you with this. Marketing is something that every business needs to do. Speak to local companies, offer to pay on results. Incentivise improvement. Collaborate with others to share the cost. Most importantly try new things. Experiment, innovate, and try. The alternative is pretty certain business failure – a slow, painful, financial death.

    As Neil says, flip the basic assumption that shoppers are going to visit you. They are not. So how do you get them into their cars/onto the bus to visit you? You need to define this and address it. Relying on passing trade is a fools game and is not a business strategy. You will go bust if you do this.

    Enlist others, speak to local Business Leaders, business schools and lecturers. Get them involved and see if they want to help. They want opportunities to develop skills, so offer a willing partnership for them.

    Online or not:

    Being online is not a choice. You have a choice in the depth of the online services you provide, but not whether you are online. Don’t provide second rate websites either. Find design students or ask small companies to quote for work. Shop around, look for examples of what they have done. There are lots of small business services, you have no excuse, and done well the world is your oyster (well, marketplace). The customer has a choice. You need to be on the list of their preferred places to buy from online. If they want to order at midnight and you cannot take the order, others will. Do not think you cannot win against major online players – YOU CAN. The service needs to be integrated into your business though. Can you offer free same day local delivery – and deliver personally in the evening? Can you offer local produce, free returns/exchanges. Make service personal. Know your customers, and most importantly care about them.

    Councils/shopping centres and city forums:

    The way most councils have failed retailers is little short of criminal. You have made high street retailers life a nightmare – supporting out of town shopping, removing open public spaces, introducing parking charges and punitive enforcement, frightening shoppers with cameras and city centre wardens (if they are meant to intimidate teenagers, what do you think they do to others?) Reverse what you can before you have no high street left. Invest to make town centres human, social, open and fun. This costs money, but an empty shop generates no rates, and unemployed owners require benefit funding. If you do not know what to do – hire someone who does. Don’t play at this. Get business focused leadership for town centre initiatives and don’t play just to the few mega-companies either. Listen to small businesses, understand their pain and help them. Final point – before approving that town centre supermarket, speak to local business owners and be honest about which ones it will ruin. Not impact, not affect, but kill. Approve if you will, but be aware of what you are doing and take responsibility for it.

    Final point to small business owners. These are hard times, you are going to be challenged, but you can prosper through this – not with a business model that is 50 years old. Innovate or die. Hyperhole? Absolutely not. Walk down any high street and you will see the evidence.

  2. Pingback: Two companies who need to go back to strategy basics « interacter

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