A nation of shopkeepers. Or are we?

According to Napoleon (supposedly) we are a nation of shopkeepers. Granted this quote dates back to around 1790 and a few things have changed since then, the invention of the internet for one. 

Over the past decade the high street has changed, the way we shop has changed and trends have changed. Since Woolworths closed  (used to love their Pic n Mix) there has been a steady stream of large high street shops that have closed or at least reduced their number of stores. River Island, Mothercare, Maplin, Toys R Us, Poundland, House of Frazer to name but a few have all seen a decline in their stores or in some more extreme cases they have closed altogether. We now even hear rumours of Marks & Spencer’s struggling again, a true national treasure of a business. The feeling is that if these large, well established stores can struggle and close then what hope is there for us little guys?

There are certain factors that are definitely having a negative impact on businesses. Rents on the high street are in many cases astronomically high. One store I use to work in was paying £150,000 a year for a 10 year lease! Business rates are another factor and a real hot topic at the moment and contrary to popular belief these are set by the central government NOT the local. Typically these rates are around 40% of the rental value so can add a huge extra cost. The next factor is online sales. I talk of this as a negative point cautiously as many small businesses do well online and make a large percentage of their sales on this platform. However, the retail giants such as Amazon and ASOS have probably pushed a lot of businesses to breaking point as they are competing to sell the same products and can offer them cheaper, with free postage and returns. This is the precise area where I feel the large high street chains have struggled potentially more than the little guys. The small shops find rent and the rates a big issue as it’s such a large percentage of their overall costs. However a lot of times smaller shops sell more unique products and can offer a customer a service that a large chain or online store just cannot. The larger stores often sell more generic products, mass produced and cheap that can easily be purchased online. Because online stores don’t have the overheads of a bricks and mortar shop this means they can carry more stock and therefore not run out of sizes or styles etc. To put this into context I currently sell our very own Viking designed T-Shirts. They are by far our biggest selling item and what’s more, we are the only shop selling this design in the whole wide world. No online store and no other high street shop sell it. This means we have 100% market share of this design. When I worked for The North Face and Timberland in York there were five other shops just in York that sold the same brands and approximately over 250 stores based in the UK selling them online. This means your market share is tiny. This is in essence what I feel has happened with the high street and the competition from online. If you can buy the same or virtually the same product online for cheaper and get free postage and returns then you are going to. Plus if you don’t have to travel into a town or city centre and pay car park fees etc then you are probably going to buy the product from the online retailer. Even as a shop owner I can see the sense in this and see why people do it. 

So it’s all doom and gloom then. Well no I don’t like to think so. Now before I go on I would just like to say that Winstons is by no means flying high and making me millions, far from it, but I do see positives and a future within retail. The last twelve months at Winstons we have really focused on finding and stocking small, unique brands that only very few and in some cases no one else in the UK stocks. This means like our Viking range, we have a much higher market share so if you want that item then you have to buy it from us. Just think, how many places can you buy an Adidas T-Shirt, a pair of New Balance trainers or a Fitbit from? The answer, millions of places! What this means is the shops that sell these generic products and brands are basically knocking each other out and eventually something has to give. The same can be seen with restaurants and coffee shops. The amount of generic Italian restaurants there are now means it was only a matter of time before one like Strada closed or Jamie’s runs into trouble (like it has). Same with Burger restaurants, with GBK, Five Guys and Byron burger it was always going to happen that one was going to struggle, in this case it’s Byron Burger who are looking to close 20+ locations. 

What can be done to ‘save’ the high street?

‘Control the controllables’. Are rents going to come down? No. Is the government going to reduce rates? Maybe. Are big stores such as Amazon and ASOS going to continue to grow online? Yes. You can’t really do much about these three things. As a retailer what you can do is find those unique brands, produce your own products and offer a service that big online stores can’t. Let your personality come through in your shop. Use social media. It’s free! In my humble opinion it’s in the easiest way to advertise and the best way to get a message out there. Use online. Just because a lot of shops are getting eaten up by online giants doesn’t mean smaller shops can’t sell on there and get in on the action. I know tiny shops that take 70%+ on of their sales online (because the products they sell are not sold by many others, go figure). 

What can the consumer do? Support us. It might be to you just a pair of socks for Fathers Day (we sell a great selection of socks by the way 😉) but to a small retailer it’s massive. These little consistent sales are just what we need to carry on growing and help keep our doors open and the lights on. 

Apologies for going on a bit and I thank you for reading this. I truly believe that there is a future for small shops on our streets. They bring so much excitement, uniqueness, quality and personality to many towns and cities, not to mention what they do for the local economy (that point I’ll write about in a future post). 

Happy shopping and support local! 

David @Winstons 


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