Retail Reflections: Can small retailers fill the void left by big chain stores?

Alan Monahan writes: Fed up with reading downbeat pre and post-holiday stories about footfall and predicted sales, I turned in desperation to Amazon Echo, my new Christmas toy, to find out if the future looked brighter for retailers.

Surely the all-knowing Alexa would be able to tell me if shop owners could expect economic salvation in the year ahead. After all, she can play any song I request from my armchair and her general knowledge is encyclopaedic.

The conversation was short.

‘Alexa, how will UK retailers fare in 2018?’ I asked.
‘Sorry, I’m not sure,’ she replied.

Yes, I suppose it was a bit of a long shot: I couldn’t have reasonably expected an Amazon product to spill the beans about retailing to would-be competitors.

So, I guess we’re back to crystal ball-gazing. And there is no shortage of ‘experts’ who are paid to do just that. But it’s worth remembering that most of them are reflecting on the future of retail groups and not the small gift and greeting card shops, which I suspect most of my readers own.

And that’s just what I thought when I read the gloomiest end-of-year forecast by Neil Craven. Under the Mail on Sunday headline, ‘Shops …they’re so last century’, he wrote: ‘My prediction for the coming year: the next 12 months will be a watershed moment for the high street. In fact, that moment may already be here.

‘Its arrival has been slow but painfully inevitable. Most of the saurian beasts that inhabit the retail sector went into – and came out of – the economic crisis in 2009 with one big idea. More shops .’

Fast forward to today. He believes that the ‘fundamental problem is the growing awareness that the obsession with going to the shops is not what oils the wheels of consumerism in the 21st Century’.

People like eating out, going on holiday, going to events, he says. ‘They are far more exciting ways to fill those endless Facebook posts than with stuff you’ve bought from a shop.’

I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but haven’t we always done those things, Mr Craven? Most of the people I know with disposable income are senior citizens. Yes, they may be on Facebook, but the majority use social media just to keep up with what their kids are doing.

And when it comes to Britain having ‘too many shops and far too many in the wrong places’, he is referring to retail groups who are ‘eking out an existence in doomed high streets or shopping centres’.

But that’s where more than half of Brits still prefer to make their Christmas purchases rather than online, according to a survey of 2,000-plus people conducted by giffgaff.

With shopping on mobile apps or the desktop continuously on the rise, it was expected that a large number of UK consumers would beat the festive queues by buying on the internet – but only a meagre 9.5% said they predominantly did so.

Chains look ahead to an uncertain future as they close more and more stores. There may then be opportunities for small independents to successfully fill the void by offering consumers making their way to Costa Coffee or Timpson second-to-none service and products that can’t be found in big retail outlets.

The woman who runs the gift shop in my local town centre confirmed that the recent move away from the high street by M&S and the closure of other stores hadn’t had the detrimental effect on her business that she first feared.

In fact, it had been a ‘pretty good’ Christmas: only snow in the preceding week had slowed footfall. Very little festive stock remained. And, having recently launched a website for the shop, she hadn’t had a single product returned!

So, it’s onwards and upwards for her and other retailers like you, many of whom will be gearing up for Valentine’s Day, which Mintel estimates to be worth £620 million in sales. And with Mother’s Day (£580m), Easter (£575m) and Father’s Day (£410m) on the horizon you will no doubt be attending one of the many great trade shows taking place around the UK, The Netherlands, France and Germany over the next few weeks. There will be so much that is new to see, so it’s time well spent searching for something different.

You might even consider placing this sign on the shop door for your customers: ‘Sorry we’re closed but we’re at a show finding fantastic new products that you won’t see anywhere else in town!’