Saturday, 1 December 2012

Indies Need To Find A Better Bogeyman

Apparently, a small group of men in a non-descript office located in an industrial estate in Hertfordshire are currently unleashing an evil plan to destroy every High Street in the UK. I know, it's shocking, isn't it. And having tried to get a small piece of signage rolled out to 150 shops, I'm also guessing it's unlikely.

For Tesco aren't really the bogeyman for independent retailers, no matter what the industry that has grown up "supporting" the High Street claims. One of my old projects at Tesco spent several million pounds revitalising over 150 Metro stores which helped keep High Street and suburban shopping centres alive. The flipside of that particular project was that if the trials hadn't worked, these would have more than likely been shut down. Since then, the Express format has exploded again investing in local shopping areas and making them viable.

Tesco aren't alone - JS and now Morrisons are all investing in High Streets, so why don't Asda get more abuse from the High Street campaigners? After all, their three formats are all anti-High Street locations. Asda Living is staunchly Retail Park based - retail parks are truly horrible and soulless locations which, although being very family-friendly in terms of access and parking, are also very anti-competitive towards new entrants to the market. Asda's core superstore business is about big out-of-town boxes, while most Asda Supermarkets are also on Retail Parks. Hardly great for communities really, are they? And let's face it, their US owners have form when it comes to store location policy.

I won't disagree that Tesco aren't a fearsome competitor and if I was running my own indie grocery store, I know that I'd need to raise my game. Express and Local have changed the face of community grocery, bringing higher standards of shop-fitting, display, and range. Pricing may be a bone of contention, but its more consistent and arguably more transparent. From a shopper's perspective, it's no surprise that they've become immensely popular and forced many an indie grocery to contemplate their career choice.

That's not to say it's impossible not to coexist with a mult c-store on your doorstep. The centralised ranging, although often tailored using local demographics data, will never be as good as one chosen by a local owner. And the supply chain constraints present many challenges that an indie wouldn't even think possible (a "mis-pick" - what's that?!). Joining a symbol or fascia group makes it even easier to compete these days. All the main groups have really upped their game in response to the mults, particularly Nisa who have really stepped up to the Tesco challenge. Whenever I've spoken to people who their head office, they often benchmark themselves against Tesco and sometimes even demand the same treatment as them - after all, they too have over a 1,000 shops with their logo on. It's a fair point, and their change to a national solutions applied locally approach mirrors a lot of the ideas that gave Tesco their hard-won place at the top of the retailing tree.

But it's not just about having the signwriter put a local street name on the front of a national logo - I was doing that with Metro 12 years ago - it's about engaging with your local customers. A couple of months back, I was lucky enough to visit a new Spar in the East Midlands which our Field Sales team had helped open. The owner was doing everything I'd expect - he'd considered the local competition, he'd identified range gaps and he was flexing that local power that the nearby Co-op manager would probably kill for. Whilst in the store, a shopper asked about a particular product - he didn't have it, but promised it would be in the store next time they came in. "Doesn't matter if I can get it through Spar," he told me, "I can get it through the local Cash & Carry". That's local decision making at its best.

But the High Street isn't just about grocery - it's about a broad selection of shops and services from big and small retailers. And this is where I believe there's a much more positive story - in at least, retailers who are great at what they do are riding these current storms and, in some cases, thriving. Being a mediocre or bad retailer will hurt in a downturn - it doesn't respect the size of the business. Look at the empty excess space that makes up High Streets look scruffy and and it's mostly collapsed mults.

I don't know it it's luck or perculiar to Leeds, but the last two places I've lived have had excellent High Street areas. In Garforth now, there's a good Cooplands bakery (which competes well with the Greggs opposite), there's an amazing Greengrocer/Deli which survives in spite of the Tesco at the edge of town and the Co-op three doors away, as does the butcher. Commuting across to Manchester everyday means I'm restricted to evenings and weekends to use my local shops, but even in the even, I don't have to use the JS Local or Co-op as there's an excellent off Rhythm and Booze off license which is very active in community work. And you can't beat the coffee in Baraka - we're clearly not worthy of the shocking brown steam that you get in Costa.

So, if it's not Tesco actually killing off High Streets, and the "campaigners" won't be drawn on Asda. The government has to take a lot of the blame. The effective bailout to property developers infests our High Streets with charity stores, and keeps an unrequired excess of space on the books when it could be put to be better use, e.g. housing, community space. And then there's business rates that will hit the whole industry really hard next year, pushing costs through the entire supply chain. This will raise prices at the till, cut margins and won't respect even great retailing.

If only the industry could stop bickering about "us and them" and focus on this one issue. Mults and indies can, do and should co-exist to keep out vibrant and exciting retail industry alive. We have the best retailers in the world in the UK - let's remember that and get on with selling.

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