CAN MARKETING SAVE GUILDFORD’S HIGH STREET?
There are two large buildings a few hundred yards apart in Guildford. One has a thriving business in computer games, the other is closing down, its department store business no longer viable.
Electronic Arts and Debenhams are two extremes of what is happening in today’s town centres.
Traditional retailers are suffering. First it was Woolworth, then BHS, now Debenhams. Times are tough for Marks and Spencer, House of Fraser and Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group. Meanwhile internet retailing continues to expand and expand.
Does this mean the end of the high street as we know it? The answer is, probably. Certainly things will have to change, rapidly. ‘Bricks’ retailers complain that they are losing out to internet sites including Amazon since they do not have the expensive real estate bills – business rates, rents etc. They talk of the government needing to tax on-line sales more heavily. But this ignores the reality of the changing face of shopping. The genie is out of the bottle. Once customers have got used to ordering online, getting the item delivered the next day, being able to return it if unsuitable, they are not likely to want to spend time driving into Guildford, searching for a car park, paying a lot to park (and risking overstaying on a pay and display site, trudging through rain only to find that the store doesn’t have their size, or the item they want is out of stock.
The cost, the time, the frustration all mitigate against going shopping in the traditional way. Retailers cannot change the car parking charges, reduce the business rates or influence the weather. They must therefore improve their service and customer experience if they are to survive. They must also embrace the web and IT rather than fight it.
John Lewis have a thriving online retail site and cleverly tie this in with their local Waitrose grocery stores where customers can pick up their orders. Compare this with Debenhams.
Retail outlets can serve as aids to internet shopping by providing product demonstrations and detailed customer advice rather than merely a ‘pick it up and pay’ approach. But that means training staff in a different way, bringing clever IT into the stores and measuring the success of high street premises in a different way – not just in the direct sales volume.
But department stores face competition not only from other retailers but the manufacturers themselves.
More brands are selling direct: Brands such as Joules or Games Workshop are seeing their sales lift as they focus on giving their very different groups of customers the experience that they want, both online and offline. House of Fraser says that its focus will be on the brand proposition, with a high concentration of premium brands in order to become “the house of brands”. But today’s multichannel marketplace means that today retailers such as department stores are competing against the brands that they sell, whether that’s through their own direct sales online or in stores.
Will Guildford’s High Street stay the same? Certainly not. Will there be losers? Certainly. But there could be winners too if the local authority addresses the parking and business rates problems and retailers change their offerings.