Retail expert Corin Birchall (pictured) of Kerching Retail examines the implications of the Portas Report for independent retailers in the East Midlands.
The eagerly anticipated Portas Report published at the end of 2011 has been hailed by many as the remedy for our troubled high streets and independent retailers. The report’s recommendations were based on six months of research by Mary Portas and her team, including an open forum for ideas from store and business owners, local authorities and shoppers, as well as previously published reports highlighting statistical changes in customers’ buying behaviour and their impact.
Implications for the East Midlands
Initially, very little will change. The government’s response is due in six months, following on from consultation with local authorities across the country. Much of what is proposed in the report is designed to stem out of town development and to encourage working with current assets on our high streets. Focusing on the out of town issue, largely responsible for driving traffic away from town centres, can only be good news. However, in reality the damage has already been done in many towns and cities across the East Midlands. For example, many supermarket acquisitions of edge of town locations for large stores with concessions and national stores framing the superstore have already been signed off.
The report comprises 28 recommendations that range from engaging landlords, to reducing business rates for start-ups, through to larger retailers mentoring smaller independents Recommendations include:
- Town teams - local authorities are urged to create town teams: visionary, strategic operational management organisations for high streets. However, it is unclear how these would differ from what a BID (Business Improvement District) or Town Centre partnership aim to do.
- Super BIDs – successful BIDs should take on more power and responsibility, becoming Super BIDs. A number of towns and cities across the East Midlands have BIDs, but despite working hard to stimulate local business, feedback is mixed. It seems logical to learn from successful BIDs and use Super BIDs to manage smaller satellite towns that might not be able to justify their own.
- National Market Day – budding shopkeepers can try their hand at operating a low cost retail business. We have seen a resurgence of markets across some parts of the region: Hinckley market for instance can put 20% on the local stores’ trade on market day. However, markets as buoyant as Hinckley are few and far between.
- Free parking – this inevitably makes an appearance in the report. However, in my experience, free parking rarely has a significant impact. Typically, staff fill up spaces and it is harder for customers to park. More importantly, if the retail offering is uninspiring, it becomes immaterial. Towns that offer a limited free period are a good compromise.
- Mentoring – the suggestion that large retailers should support and mentor local businesses and independent retailers is an optimistic one – and quite possibly unrealistic. As a retail consultant, I regularly monitor the behaviour of different types of retailer, and the divide between large multiples and independents has widened over time, so it is unlikely that a local multiple store manager would be best placed to help a small independent. The skill set for an independent is much broader than a national: an independent plays the role of marketeer, store designer, buyer, sales person, personnel manager, book keeper and increasingly online specialist too – juggling countless plates simultaneously. Skills within the large multiples are much more focused, narrow and prescribed.
- The role of landlords – there was much emphasis on landlords, including disincentives for vacant units and engaging them in local BIDs. In principle this is sensible, however many landlords are absent and have little connection with their properties. If all landlords can be brought to the table, this would be very positive.
If your local authority hasn’t yet responded, you should air your views quickly to get them included. Unfortunately, although discussions around supporting local shops and high streets are encouraging, little is likely to happen in the short term to change your fortune, so, if you want a successful 2012, you will need to take action yourself rather than waiting for things to suddenly change for the better. Start by reviewing what you are doing to attract and convert customers – and encouraging them to return. Offering your customers a first rate retail experience and focusing on what you can do is your best chance of success for 2012.
Corin Birchall is the founder and Managing Director of Kerching Retail www.kerchingretail.com a consultancy that works with local authorities and independent retailers to help improve turnover and profitability. Corin offers a free initial consultation service. For more information, call 01455 203 206 or email email@example.com