Retail Reflections: Goodbye ‘Lou’; Full-on shopping in Funchal; town centre planning

Alan Monahan writes: A fond farewell to Louise Young, who leaves her post of managing director of Autumn Fair and Spring Fair in the New Year. I do hope that the timing of her departure will persuade this straight-talking Scot to take a deserved wee dram at Hogmanay – or, at the very least, a glass of Hendrick’s Gin, which she pointed me to a few years ago.

I once worked with ‘Lou’ and know that she has given her all to the job and led by example, helping to re-invent both Autumn Fair and Spring Fair at a time when these and other trade shows have had to demonstrate that they are still an essential part of the fabric of our industry. In difficult times, I genuinely believe that she has achieved this.

The track record of her successor, Julie Driscoll, more than suggests that she will be able to do the same. I do hope so and invite you to join me in wishing her well.

If we fail to support Autumn Fair and Spring Fair – be we suppliers, retailers or mere commentators – I think we do so at our peril. The high street – as far as retailing is concerned – is in turmoil as shoppers go online.

So, don’t we need the personal contact of trade exhibitions which is so missing on the web – meeting old customers and hopefully new ones – and finding exclusive product to steal a march on competitors? Real life.

Yep, I know, easy for me to say as I don’t have to pay for a stand or the costs involved in visiting these shows. You’ll work out your return on investment. But I would caution that in the long run pressing the flesh and viewing, touching and smelling product is more important than it has ever been.

Having covered Black Friday, Bira and business rates in my last column, I’m going to try to avoid using B words this time around. So, no Brexit comment or references to the utter b******s often spouted by politicians of all parties.

I will, though, mention the banal questions shouted by reporters to ministers as they leave 10 Downing Street in times of crisis. You know the sort of thing: ‘Are you resigning, sir?’; ‘Who are you sleeping with?’ … Well, perhaps not the last one. But you get my drift. The hacks never receive answers from tight-lipped politicians as they scurry away, but are no doubt praised by editors for their plaintive cries.

Moving on from the letter B – this sounds like Sesame Street – we jump to M.

I have just returned from a holiday in Madeira. That’s where old people like me go when it gets chilly at home. The sun didn’t shine much, but the rain was warm. The hills certainly seemed steeper.

Cruise ship and airline visitors are welcome invaders looking for affordable gifts for friends and family in Funchal, the capital. And they find them. Attractive silk scarves, eye-catching costume jewellery and leather goods, as well as the usual souvenir tat to be found in holiday destinations. Here, I would exclude the colourful local pottery, a limited quantity of which would not disgrace any home.

Some of the stuff in Funchal (my wife loves the local Zara store) can be found on UK high streets. But what strikes me about Madeiran shop staff – and I am a frequent visitor to the island – is their helpfulness. They always seem prepared to go the extra mile. I’m not suggesting that our own retailers don’t offer good service, but can the majority close a sale in quite the same way? I’m not sure.

I never feel pressured into buying, and as a result seem to end up with more bags than I bargained for! I’ll put it down to the natural charm of the Madeiran people, but I’ll understand if you tell me that I’m just being naïve.

On holiday I resisted the temptation to turn on the TV in our hotel room or to buy a newspaper, but when I got back I collected 17 of them, saved for me by the lady in my local village shop.

I was right to assume that there would be few positive headlines about retailing. I thumbed through all the papers. ‘High street shop values fall by 10%’; ‘Record number of high street closures as shops feel pinch’; and ‘Sluggish sales as shoppers play it cool’ brought bad news in abundance.

Surely there was a ray of hope to penetrate the retail gloom. Ah, Barclaycard says that consumer spending is up 4.4% over the past year. But hold on, it was pubs, restaurants and ticket sellers who saw a large rise in card transactions, while department store spending was down 5.9% as a number of chains closed shops.

Will the festive season save the day? It just might. Although consumers are still cautious, Barclaycard reckons that of the people with more money to spend, 36% are putting it towards Christmas.

I see that James Brokenshire – he’s the Communities Secretary if he hasn’t resigned by the time this appears – has been visiting Bristol to launch a new Open Doors initiative which brings together the landlords of empty stores with housing groups and community organisations.

He has revealed that more than 27,000 premises are lying empty in England’s town centres and believes that vacant shops could be turned into houses for the homeless or converted into youth clubs, drop-in centres and gyms to help transform our high streets into vibrant community hubs.

Brokenshire argues that more residents could increase demand for shops and services. Possibly. But I wonder if previously homeless people will be rushing to spend any disposable income they might have in gift and greeting card shops – if indeed they are part of any plan to revitalise our town centres.

A great deal of care needs to be taken to achieve the right balance. We must avoid a similar situation to that which prevails in Christchurch, Dorset, where there are 14 different coffee shops on a 500-yard stretch of the high street, leading to a ban on the opening of any more.

The law is not always an ass. Thanks to a Court of Appeal ruling, a separate business rates tax on hole-in-the-wall cash machines attached to shops has been overturned, This is very good news.

Sainsbury’s, Tesco and the Co-op brought the case against the Government’s Valuation Office Agency. It is estimated that leading high street retailers are now owed hundreds of millions of pounds in tax refunds.

There had been concerns that the additional tax would have led to charges for cash or machine closures. As I’ve said before, we cannot afford to lose more ATMs. Their removal continues to hurt both retailers and the public.