From £/ sq. foot to smiles/ sq. foot!  3 building blocks of high street success   by Simon Ripton

UK Director of Partners & D2C
December 2018


From £/ sq. foot to smiles/ sq. foot! 3 building blocks of high street success


First, the bad news

It’s the 3rd December and I’m sat at my desk eating lunch and reading the BBC online news. There’s just 22 days left until Christmas, Black Friday is a distant memory and for anyone working in high street retail the bad-news keeps coming.

Today’s news makes particularly grim reading. 8 of the 18 business headlines are negative about the state of the British high street or retail in general. The headlines include announcements of more retail redundancies and store closures, the ‘questionable’ management practices of a small number of senior retail leaders and the cancellation of the multi-billion pound sale of shopping centre assets under the banner “is the shopping centre ready to check out?”

High street retail is under scrutiny like never before. In fact as I begin typing this blog the Housing, Community and Local Government Committee evidence session is preparing to welcome Mike Ashley as part of its ongoing inquiry into high streets and town centres in 2030. Does (another) enquiry mark a turning point or is the high street really broken beyond repair?

And now the good news

The news headlines got me thinking. Surely there’s good news about the high-street out there somewhere? I looked around and I found it.

Some of the success stories are well trailed…from Primark which, despite not having an ‘online’ presence, continues to expand (though check out the number of followers on their Instagram feed…staggering) or Zara with its supply chain optimised to deliver value to the customer…fast and with minimal waste, and Waterstones which creates great spaces for book lovers to indulge all things literary!

Some high-street success stories are less well known…the independent curry restaurant with 5 outlets that doesn’t just serve great food on the high street but runs in-store cooking demos and courses, offers tasting events, provides pop-up take-away at events and regularly collaborates with relevant partners like a local brewer who helped customers pair beers with their curry. Brilliant!

I discovered ‘Small Business Saturday’ too, that claims this year to have generated over £800m of spending in small businesses and retailers, and the ‘Great British High Street Awards 2018’ that showcase wonderful examples of high street and retail innovation…including my personal favourite in Wimbourne, Dorset, where retailers have created a ‘use our loo’ scheme (no more shouty…’WCs are for customer use only’ signs!) and the ‘mug wall’ in every café that will allow people to borrow a coffee cup, rather than using a disposable one, that they can then drop off at any other café.

The word on the (high) street

Closer to home, and as part of my MBA studies, I was recently given a first-hand insight in to the challenge facing the high street. I took part in a project with my local City Council to look at the future for a particular high street in my area. The team and I undertook a week’s desk research of a range of relevant publications including (amongst many) the Portas Review, the 2nd Grimsey Review and the ‘Revitalising Town Centres Handbook’ from the Local Govt. Assoc.

We also spoke to local traders, to local councillors charged with managing the high street and to community representatives worried about the broader social impact of a declining high-street on their particular community.

Having completed the work I firmly believe the future of the British high street will be successful but it will be a very different high-street to the one we know today. The overall ‘mix’ of the high-street will need to change and it seems likely that many retail workers will lose their jobs or will have to re-train although different jobs will be created (retail theatre manager, anyone?).

It seems likely that the very fabric of the high-street will evolve and greater use will be made of existing buildings for residential, office, education, community and even manufacturing purposes. The exchange of value between landlord, retailer and government will mature…with retailers and landlords, perhaps, even providing shared community spaces that were once provided by the public sector, alongside a core retail and ‘experiential’ offering?

3 building blocks of a successful high-street

The conclusion of our work is no surprise. Much has already been written about the future of the high street being ‘experiential’ and our research reinforced this view. The question is how to get there?

What really struck me was just how important the high street is to communities, and the community to the high street. So we concluded that, if the high street is to survive it will require 3 things:

  1. Vision: A really clear, shared vision for the high street. Not (just) as a place to sell stuff, but as a place where all members of the community can come together to share experiences, enjoy each-other’s company, learn new things and meet new people. A cultural and experiential hub.
  2. Leadership: Unless the vision is owned and championed then the high-street doom-mongers have already won. Leadership is vital in bringing together ALL the interested groups (not just large retailers and landlords) to re-invent and reinvigorate the high street for the 21st century. Leading to my final point…
  3. Collaboration: There are no silver bullets here. It’s not (just) about having great product, a great brand, the lowest price…or even great service. These things are, to some extent, now tickets to the game.

    What will actually drive success on the high street of the future is engagement with customers, communities and stakeholders to deliver shared experiences and interactions that are impossible to replicate on the web alone. That engagement will require collaboration, working together, compromise and the acquisition of new skills all with the aim of finding ways to re-invent the high-street so that it is relevant to the community it serves.

Engagement and relevance: What might the future look like?

I’m convinced that the high street can learn a lot from online only counterparts. It’s more than having a slick, integrated supply chain. What online retailers do really well is understand how to measure and influence the interactions their customers have with them in the digital space.

What might happen if the high street could effectively measure and influence those things routinely measured by online retailers? For example time spent in physical stores, repeat visits to the high street, touch time vs. elapsed time in stores, encouraging social ‘chat’ with and between staff and customers and enabling experimentation with physical products, measuring ‘sentiment’ and understanding the number, frequency and order of interactions the customer is having with other brands up and down the high street value chain.

Clearly, technology has a role to play. Mobile payment devices have the potential to provide huge insights. Though, in the absence of such technology, the power of the high street is that these observations, conversations and influences can happen face-to-face in support of data gained in digital channels.

As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed, so perhaps it’s time to ditch the traditional high street metric of £/turnover/sq. foot and instead develop bold new metrics for the future. With community engagement in mind, how about smiles/sq. foot to get started with?


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Offering retail finance - 10 tips to engage & empower your team


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