Which Phoenix-like retailers will rise from the ashes?

Like many, I’ve been shopping in my local city centre more in recent months. But while I’ve been struck by the number of store closures on the high street, something else has become apparent: the heart of what makes customers want to spend time and money in stores is also missing in some of our biggest retailers.

Peterborough is one of the many high streets haemorrhaging major retailers. John Lewis is the latest. Having been the anchor store in the Queensgate Shopping Centre for over 30 years, it recently abandoned its place as the only remaining destination department store in the centre, despite the retailer carrying out a multi-million pound investment to refit the whole branch little more than 18 months ago.

Reduced competition should cause those that remain to apply the throttle even harder – making a concerted, sustained push to seize the opportunities, and capably filling the void that has been left.

The Beales store close to the Westgate Arcade, another former staple of my town centre, had also been lost. A ‘casualty of the pandemic’, as well as years of under-investment and a lacklustre proposition. Now though, just a few months on, Beales appears to have risen from the ashes. Saved from the clutches of ‘the forever gone’ UK retailers with the likes of Woolies and C&A.

I decided to pay a visit to the store to see the ‘new’ Beales, anticipating new investment and a sense of renewed energy – hoping it would take the best of what was there before, and land something fresh, relevant, and more exciting. What greeted me, however, was altogether more sobering.

It feels like so many unanswered questions are visible.

The ‘new’ Beales is all too like what was there before. Less of it though, now just featuring on one floor. I have no doubt the Beales team have fought and worked hard to get this store trading again, but while it may now be re-open, to me, it is no way ready for business.

Walking into this store I can see so much potential to make this shop better. Better for customers. Better for the colleagues. And, ultimately, better performing – the reason why the very best retailers still thrive. For me, Beales has not defined its strategy, does not have a clear or compelling proposition and fundamentally has not addressed the issues instore that contributed to the previous chains’ demise. It feels like so many unanswered questions are visible. The Beales of today blindly following its past with a repeat, repeat, repeat playbook. A scenario that didn’t end well…

The example of Beales should serve as a warning to others. Right now, there are too many retailers that could fairly be labelled as ‘mediocre’. They are easy to spot; those trying to fix their problems by either piecemeal action or endless internal restructuring – the moving of deck chairs coming to mind – rather than adopting the focused action needed to fix their stores in easy, practical ways that deliver ‘baseline competent’ shopkeeping and deliver meaningful, everyday improvements to the customer experience. If I was to draw up a list, I wouldn’t be alone in my views. Worryingly for the retailers that would feature, many shoppers would agree too.

In those retailers who have re-emerged or for those still ‘hanging on’, it is clear to see that many of the problems that led to declining success are still unresolved. Too much time spent looking inward. Big investment in the wrong places. One off, short lived initiatives or ‘grand plans’ lacking in a long term commitment and investment to deliver success. Retail staff working increasingly harder, but often in vain.

It’s time for open, honest dialogue about where and how to change.

The pandemic has, understandably, resulted in senior leadership becoming distanced and removed from the day job. Now is the time for them to get back to the floor to see first-hand the work required in-store to restore baseline retail competence and deliver focused innovation. In my experience working with many leading retailers, this is always acted as the critical starting point; providing the ‘shot in the arm’ needed to begin rebuilding growth, re-energising teams, and restoring customer confidence in the brand. It’s time for open, honest dialogue about where and how to change, and to mobilise the skills and energy to do it.

While I’m certain many will baulk at the audacity to call out what is wrong, I fail to see here what is right. Simply ‘switching the lights on’ and throwing open the doors is not enough. Today’s customers want and demand more. If the pandemic has taught retailers anything, it’s that shoppers don’t need to visit the high street to get what they want. Retailers must give people a good, very good, reason to visit their shops.

Big strategic ideas will be important for retail’s future, but so too is getting competent store presentation and operational standards right every day. Sprinkle in some differentiating value-added details, and before long, as a shopkeeper, you’re creating retail magic again. Source exciting product newness, inspire with effective marketing and deliver great service for maximum shopper satisfaction. Use external expertise to help lead, guide and land change initiatives. Tactics so often lost in the blind spot of the ‘tiresome grind’ of shopkeeping, but which does make an immediate difference to customers lives and business success.

As lockdowns lift and customer behaviour returns to see people tentatively re-engage with their high streets and shopping in-store, retailers also have a rare, ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to reboot their shops and to tackle the causes of poor performance at a systemic level. As the adage goes: when you get a second chance in life, it’s important to make it count.

By Kirsty Kean

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