Tumbleweed in The High Street

Have you walked down your local High Street recently?

Across many towns here in the UK we see empty shops. “For Sale and To Let” advertising boards appear from walls and stuck to the windows on many buildings.

During many periods of the day there are few people shopping in what were once thriving business areas. It feels like a shot from an old western movie of a ghost town and all that is needed is to complete the picture is tumbleweed to gently blow along the ground.

Why has the situation occurred and what can be done to bring life back into Britain’s shopping streets? We can of course blame the recession but this situation started before then. Many blame the out of town stores or new larger shopping centres all with easy access and car parking. The rise in Internet shopping can also be a factor in the demise of our High Streets.

However there is one party that should carry some blame and yet who claim to be the victims. The shopkeepers themselves! Shock horror! No way! Sadly it is true. Retailers in Britain have been set in their ways for centuries basically doing the same things. Old ways that once worked well no longer do.

The supermarkets started to change the way people shop and the ever growing range of products they offer has threatened many retailers. Retailers though have missed a trick! Rather than competing head on against these giants of the retail world they should have changed the way they do business and developed a niche market. (Please read my article “How Many Customers Do you Need?” which sheds more light on this.)

The retail giants can only sell a limited range of each type of product, very rarely do they have experts to talk to customers and they find it hard to develop a personal relationship with customers. All of these things a small business and retailer can do. Another point to consider too is that small shops can be made more pleasing to the eye and welcoming than the large warehouse like buildings of super stores. Smaller shops can create a more friendly and family like environment in which to shop which will draw in customers looking for a better shopping experience.

People will travel miles to visit a good shop and a shopkeeper can create a loyal following of people that will keep her in business and profitably so with just a little effort and application of good retailing principles for this modern era. I can recommend a good book by Seth Godin entitled Tribes
that will help you create and develop a following of customers.

It would be also wise for any retailer to seek advice from an expert in the retailing world that has been able to establish and make shops profitable. Read our Spotlight On Feature about such a person, Adrian Chase. With a few changes our High Streets can have the life put back into them but it is going to be the businesses in those streets that will bring the customers back. No one else can do it. With proper application the tumbleweed can be driven away and replaced by crowds of willing and eager shoppers.

If you have any comments about this subject please write them in the box below.

Roland Millward
The Entrepreneur Club

Image: Francesco Marino / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


10 thoughts on “Tumbleweed in The High Street

  1. Your point about supermarkets having a limited range is a good one.

    I feel that there is still a place – possibly more than ever – for local “Arkwrights” as portrayed in Open All Hours. Such shops were (are?) a treasure house for everything from a ball of string to a sticky bun.

    And let’ not forget the supply of “fork handles”!

  2. Hi Roland

    It’s strange how hese things are cyclical. Newbury and Marlborough are both thriving, but a walk round central Cheltenham last week showed it looking rather sad with many of the tumbleweed symptoms you describe, and yet some of its suburban retail centres are doing well.

    Many factors come into play, but the need for businesses to attract customers is, as you point out, the key. And on line shopping is fine in some situations (I have long been a fan) but it isn’t the answer to all needs. There is still no substitute at times for actually seeing or handling an item before you buy, and after sales service can also influence where I buy from.

    I think that we will still be a nation of shopkeepers for many years to come.

  3. I’m sorry to say that i agree with most of this article, the high street has either gone or going quickly unless something is done about it. Its far more apparent in small towns, typically this is mirrored every 4-8 shops with opticians, no win no fee solicitors, coffee chains and off licenses with the occasional independent sandwich bar, car parts, sunbed salon, hardware store (if you are lucky) and maybe a computer repair shop.
    So many business that relied once upon a time on passing trade to give a personal service have diminished rapidly. I travel the country and love to see changes to the standard block of usual suspects which make a town dull. Lets hope and encourage new ideas to rejuvinate the streets and make window shopping an browsing in small locations equally as interesting as rural tourist locations or bigger cities otherwise people wont set foot out and towns will stay for sale until such time as they become residential developments under pressure of tenants nervous of the plunge. They need to be able to profit from it. I think specialists is one way to go but such high risk for so many products and services that were once floor fillers on the high street. I think the government could assist with attracting tenants to vacant properties with a structured deal as the gamble seems greater than ever for the retailer to sink or swim.
    Hats off to the people that can suggest strategies to rescue the high street, we would all miss it if it doesnt improve. Radical ideas are required to breath life back in to the retail streets!!

  4. Sadly it’s true – there are so many small businesses closing down and yes we are in danger of walking down a street with the theme tune of “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” playing in the background! I miss the 1:1 service you used to get from a small shop. They knew exactly what products were my favourites, they would keep some aside if they knew I was going to be coming in and could see they were running short, they always asked how I was feeling etc. In other words “customer care” was a priority.

    Would any of the large supermarkets know if I was under the weather, would they put aside the last remaining box of my favourites biscuits for me to collect at the end of the day, would they have the time – No. Not through the fault of the person serving behind the counter but purely because of size – how can they build up a rapport with their customers – all hundreds of them that go through their doors every day. Technology has helped the larger businesses as they can set up monthly email newsletters to go out informing loyal customers of the latest products. With more and more people shopping on line, creating accounts they can obtain their contact details in a second.

    As you rightly point out – creating a niche, an affordable market is the way to go – create that 1:1 with the customer, make them feel special and you will have a loyal customer for as long as this type of service is offered.

    Of course one of the other factors for small retail shops closing down is the rediculous rents they have to pay. I can’t understand why landlords can’t see that surely it is better to have a tenant paying a lower rent every month than charging an astronomical rent and the property being empty.

  5. There is a definate need for small specialist providers and in this area, we generally do get this. One of the main problems is that there are too many empty shops but this is also caused by landlords who will not spend to get the properties to the right standard before they are taken on, so people steer clear. This is then exasipated with big landlords still expecting high rents and years RPI increases.

    We definatly do need these small specialist shops…

  6. Hi Nigel
    Rent is a big issue for many small businesses. It may also be prudent for the Government to look at rate relief schemes for start ups too so that we can get businesses back on the high streets. Perhaps a ‘Fair Rent’ board should be established?

  7. Hi Lesley-Anne
    Service is the key. Knowledge of customers needs on a very personal basis is something as you say that local shops can provide. You make the point that is coming across from others about high rents. This certainly is an issue that needs to be addressed.
    Thank you for your comment.

  8. Hi John
    Thank you for your comment and observation. It does look like some sort of Government help / strategy would help. I am sure too that locally if Chambers of Commerce and others took a very active stand with local authorities much more could be achieved in rejuvenating our high streets.

  9. Hi John
    Thanks for your comment. Some towns benefit from tourism and some are just far enough away from larger towns and cities to be able to keep more local shops alive. However they must not sit back on this aspect alone as The Internet will make inroads into their business if they do not stay alert.

  10. It may be sad, but it is the nature of the beast. I actually prefer shopping online or going to the supermarket where everything is in one place. Cost is a key factor in buying decisions so supermarkets are ideal for this.

    It may just be because I hate shopping!

    From my own business point of view I think the biggest stumbling block to taking on the rental of a property is the long lease terms that are wanted i.e. forcing yourself to tie in for 5 years is pretty normal.

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