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An Overview Of The Mary Portas Review - The High Street: Problems & Potential

Samuel Thompson - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Portas Review —( ‘Up The Highstreet’, with thanks to comedy_nose )— This is the second part of my overview of the Portas Review. The first post regarding the report provided an introduction, while this section covers the Review’s analysis of the role of the high street, where highstreet businesses have erred and what they now need to do.

A much needed force for good…

The overarching theme of the Review is that we desperately need the high street. Without drifting into an idealisation of local shops, much is said about the social and economic benefits that they bring.

It's all about community

I believe that our high streets can be lively, dynamic, exciting and social places that give a sense of belonging and trust to a community.

While out-of-town developments, malls and big outlets might be able to provide a highly-polished and sleek shopping experience, it's the high street and local shops that bring people together. Paraphrasing somewhat, the big stores are great for the lone shopper – iPodded up and on a mission – but when it comes to the human aspect – old fashioned concepts like conversation, eye-contact and a sense of connection – the only place you'll find it is on the high street.

P.s. It's about money too

With so much of our spending going into the pockets of the big players and leaving our communities we are doing damage to the entrepreneurs, the potential brands and the wealth creators of our future, and ultimately to ourselves.

As demonstrated by research carried out by the New Economics Foundation, money spent locally – with businesses based in the area, who use local suppliers and employ local people – has a much greater local impact than money spent with non-local chains. As the high street disappears, money spent elsewhere leaves the local economy and tends to feed into the pay-cheques of distant shareholders.

In a similar vein, the report mentions the fallacy of out-of-town 'job creation', pointing out that it would be more accurate to call it job displacement, whereby out-of-town developments lead to the disappearance of high-street jobs as shops close down.

Certainly not perfect…

In contrast to many proponents of the high street, Ms. Portas makes clear her opinion that the high street has its faults and needs to improve if it's to re-attract consumers.

You, sir, do not belong

Some [shops] quite simply should never have opened their doors in the first place. Running a profitable retail business is a commitment which goes far beyond the fun of the buy and the thrill of the sale – and not everybody is cut out for it.

For many years “extremely mediocre” high street businesses were able to flourish in a previously booming economy. The recession has invariably led to tighter budgets and a more price and quality conscious consumer, leading to the closure of many under-performing businesses.

While their absence perhaps isn't to be mourned, their loss affects the high street as a whole. Empty windows and crumbling edifices reflect badly on all surrounding shops and drive away consumers.

A changing landscape

New expectations have been created in terms of value, service, entertainment and experience against which the average high street has in many cases simply failed to deliver.

The consumer of today is very different from yesteryear. The explosive growth of internet (and mobile) shopping are redefining retail and taking shoppers off the streets. The sophistication, marketing skill and sleek designs of big retailers have created a consumer with very high expectations for their shopping experience. Malls – “21st century urban entertainment centres” – offer well organised and attractive spaces filled with a large selection of stores, catering to (and influencing) the tastes of this new consumer.

Some high streets have been caught on the back foot, unable or unwilling to adapt. Consumers have, as the saying goes, voted with their feet.

But potentially fantastic.

That special something

You’ll never be able to beat the sheer efficiency of the web. You’ll never be able to compete with the range and diversity of the major multiples and supermarkets.

Where you can compete and need to focus your efforts is in three core areas: Experience, Service and Specialism.

Regardless of the shortcomings of some, the overriding message for high-street shop owners is one of hopeful potential. Competing through specialisation and expertise is well within the grasp of the driven individual who loves their business, and is highly valued and appreciated by any customer.

While small businesses may lack the budgets for massive advertising campaigns, every consumer wants to feel treated. The business that offers a real connection, genuinely cares about the customer and can express it through small everyday gestures has an advantage. Combine that with passion and knowledge and the Davids of the world can more than compete with the Goliaths.

More than just a shop

The key message for shop owners is that the high street isn’t, shouldn’t be and cannot be defined purely by retail. A final illustrative quote, if you’ll permit me:

Surviving in today’s value-minded, aggressively-discounted, convenience-focused market means reappraising how to compete and doing things differently.

It means standing for something. Connecting with our values as well as our sense of value.

So far we've looked at the Ms. Portas's analysis of the state of high-street businesses, i.e. the issues and opportunities that are within the control of the business owner. In the next post we'll look at the outside influences and pressures weighing down on the High Street, as covered by the Review.

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