Saving Britain’s High Streets – what can we learn from our European cousins?

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The state of Britain’s High Streets is a subject I have blogged about in the past – here are three of my most recent posts:

  1. I’m not paying to park! Why the British High Street might be struggling (October 2012) –
  2. Stop talking and act NOW!! Is it too late for our high streets? (March 2013) –
  3. ‘What a brilliant day!’ How communities can help revive Britain’s High Streets (July 2013) – (

Regrettably the subject is one that seems to get more and more significant on a weekly basis. An article in Saturdays Telegraph stated that ‘half of high street retailers are in danger of closing down’. The article pointed towards the release of a report by Bill Grimsey tomorrow. The report unsurprisingly will confirm that our high streets continue their rapid decline. You can read the Telegraph article here –

The reasons for the demise have been well publicised over the last couple of years. There has also been a huge amount of posturing from retail ‘experts’ and politicians about the causes and potential solutions. It is pretty clear that nothing appears to be working at the moment. I have visited a number of high streets in the last few weeks – Chester, Stockport and Redhill to name but three – with boarded up shops a plenty, it is not a very nice thing to see. It really is astonishing that a problem which is so visible is still not being addressed by central and local government.

If only something could be done about high street business rates – NOW. If only something could be done about parking restrictions and charges in and around high streets – NOW. Last Sunday, I spotted a traffic warden, or ‘enforcement officer’ (as a Twitter contact advised me they are now called). It was 4:23pm. Is it really necessary to ‘police’ parking in this manner in and around streets that desperately need customers. Surely we can have a break from this kind of thing on Sunday of all days…….we certainly used to! Local councils continuing obsession with raising money from parking fines is contributing to a far greater loss.

Putting existing challenges to one side for the moment, the major reason for creating this latest edition of my ‘British High Street Series’ is to share my thoughts on how we could look to Europe for some inspiration in our quest to ‘save the high street’. I have just spent two weeks driving through Northern Spain and Southern France. Whilst the primary objective was to enjoy a well-earned holiday, my mind never switches off when it comes to customer experience and customer service.

One thing that strikes me whenever I am in this part of the world is how different the centre of cities and towns feel. In Spain, the centre is usually denoted by a square, or ‘plaza de la ciudad’. The square is usually surrounded by bars and restaurants, and acts amongst other things as a social meeting place. The surrounding streets are full of boutiques, larger retail outlets and more bars and restaurants. In general, towns and cities feel less ‘commercial’ – they are not overrun by Tesco Express, or Costa Coffee. They appear to have a far greater proportion of independently run retailers and food operators. That is not to say that ‘multiple’ retailers are not in city centres. They are, but seem to nestle in amongst the independents, rather than take over.

Independent shops are run largely by families – families who have run their businesses for generations. It is in their heart and soul. Whilst the level of service can sometimes be considered a little brusque, that is only the nature of their culture and not a reflection on the quality of service they deliver. Out of town superstores and malls are becoming more common. Larger retailers operate in abundance here. We visited one in La Coruna last year (Marinada City) – it was impressive. The big difference is that the things you could get at Marinada City, you could not get in the city centre (and vice versa).

Marinada City in La Coruna, Northern Spain
Marinada City in La Coruna, Northern Spain

This got me thinking (dangerous I know) – why do we not help our British towns and cities to re-design their high streets in a similar way. Instead of ‘blaming’ out of town superstores and shopping centres for taking trade away from the high street, why not encourage large, multiple retailers to leave the high street to go to them. Let’s create more space for independent, family run businesses to populate our town centres. If we can make it affordable, and incentivise people to take up retail space, it is a bit of a no brainer. Independent retailers often offer a very different experience to ‘chains’. With innovative and unique products not usually sold by the big boys, and more personal, friendly and engaging customer service, the high street could become far more of a browse and buy destination. Visiting the high street could become the social event it once used to be – a bit of shopping, followed by a drink or meal in a bar or restaurant.

In France, especially Southern France, the difference is even more stark. Their is almost no evidence at all in the centre of towns of big multiple retailers. They exist, but away from the centre. The town acts as the meeting place – the centre of operations. Weekly markets still operate as they have done for decades. Locals and tourists alike throng to them on a weekly basis to see what local independent traders have to offer. If you want mass market produce, you can get it out of town – but if you want locally produced, well priced products, come to the town centre.

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Whilst we cannot physically rebuild our town centres to recreate the Spanish town square, we can certainly consider the effect of encouraging our town centres to be the domain of independent retailing. The combination of permanent independent stores, supplemented by weekly street markets could create something we cannot currently get from our big chain retailers. What this model also does is provide something you cannot currently get online – a physical retail experience. Coming to the high street should and could be an event. A day out. A place to meet friends and family. The experience of the town centre can quite happily be supported by, and even complemented by big out-of-town retail offerings and our continuing reliance on the convenience of online.

Could this become a reality? Why not? BUT…..there is always one of those…..mind-sets and attitudes need to change. Stop charging ridiculous rates that make it impossible for independent retailers to survive. Stop creating barriers that make customers think twice about visiting town centres – such as parking charges. Can it really happen – I certainly hope so. What do you think?

Sometimes the experience just does not matter – the example of Sports Direct

You approach the front of the store with an element of trepidation. Unsure what will happen inside, you are weighing up the odds of coming out alive. It is like the latter stages of the famous children’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, as you tip toe into a deep dark cave, to be confronted with a not best pleased Bear! This could be the opening of a similar short story – alas, I fear that my writing skills are not competent enough. I must therefore reveal that this is what it sometimes feels like to me when I make the decision to visit Sports Direct.

Sports retailers have never excelled at delivering fantastic customer service. In fact they are often at the bottom of independent consumer studies. A Which survey conducted a year ago saw JJB Sports, JD Sports, Sports Direct, Blacks and Millets all in the bottom ten ( Since the survey was conducted, JJB Sports has ceased to exist. Blacks and Millets were purchased by JD Sports after they went into administration. Even now, life for JD Sports is a struggle, with a recent announcement of a drop in profits – I often wonder what ever happened to Olympus Sports – the high street sports store that was around when I was a boy.

There are many reasons for the demise of companies like JJB. Poor service is just one of them. Another is the huge increase in competition from new, innovative online retailers like Wiggle and Not only are these retailers able to offer vast ranges of sporting goods for almost any discipline, they can do so more conveniently and often at a better price.

One high street retailer that seems to have bucked the trend (of struggling financially that is) is Sports Direct. Hands up if you have never visited one? Most of us have. I did myself yesterday with my son Jack. Like all growing five-year old boys, his requirement for new clothing is relentless. Yesterday it was a new pair of Crocs that was on the necessary list of purchases. For ease, we visited a local retail park (it is free and easy to park, unlike the high street). We went in to three specialist footwear retailers. None of them sold Crocs. One sold their own cheaper (and nastier) version. So it was inevitable that we would end up entering the cave like labyrinth of Sports Direct.

I am not a fan of Sports Direct as a shopping experience. In fact, in my opinion, as an experience, it is as bad as it gets. Not only is it dark and dingy, it looks like a cross between a jumble sale and a liquidation fire sale. It is often difficult to tell where the floor is. What staff you can find are generally pretty disinterested, and sometimes look as confused as their customers. So why when I am such an avid protagonist of great experiences would I allow myself to be subjected to an experience like this?

One word, and one word alone explains it – BARGAIN. To me, that is what Sports Direct is. It is a place to go to get a bargain. Once we had navigated our way through the maze of clothes, shoes, umbrellas and the like, we found a rotating display of Crocs. We managed to find a navy blue pair to fit Jack – the price – £12.99. The same pair of Crocs is currently on sale at John Lewis for £19.99. It may be difficult to find what you want, but why wouldn’t you give Sports Direct a go if you can get the things you want for so much less?

Mary Portas, the well-known retail expert wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph earlier this year – she sums it up pretty well (and interestingly uses that same ‘Cave’ analogy as me) – Whilst specialist expert sports retailers can offer you great advice, why would you give them your hard-earned money if you can use the advice they give you to get the same products much cheaper somewhere else? It appears that the success of Sports Direct is a combination of eroding competition on the high street, and a very effective supply chain that has enabled it to offer branded goods at almost unbeatable prices. In the current economic climate, it is a very compelling business model. That is why Sports Direct is a business that can and is succeeding whilst offering a pretty poor end to end customer experience. Sports Direct demonstrate that it is indeed possible for the customer experience NOT to matter.

I have visited Sports Direct in the past, and seen customers having full on arguments with staff. I have witnessed the manager of the store in Speke tell a customer ‘I could not care less what you think’. None of it seems to matter – customers keep coming back (I must also point out that I have seen plenty of perfectly pleasant staff). Sports Direct is the sports retail equivalent of Ryanair!!

The ‘pile em high, sell em cheap’ philosophy is what has enabled many businesses to thrive over the years. The question is whether this business model will have the ability to stand the test of time. We seem prepared to accept a ‘sub standard’ customer experience today, so why should Sports Direct need to ever change the way they work? I only go to Sports Direct because there is nothing else like them. I actually far preferred JJB Sports – but that is no longer an option to me. If I want to visit a physical store, my options are limited.

The risk to Sports Direct is that something new will come long that will show the consumer that there is a better option. Something new will appear where consumers can buy the sports gear they need in a far more customer friendly environment with far better customer service. Last year, the Golding family visited northern Spain. In fact we drove all the way to La Coruna on the North West coast. Just outside the city is a huge shopping centre. One of the biggest stores in it is called Decathlon. Decathlon is a sports shop. Unlike Sports Direct it is big, bright and airy. It is also extremely well organised. You can clearly see which aisle contains products for which sport. It is almost like a supermarket for sporting goods.

What is also evident is the competitive pricing – it was remarkable value. I immediately started to make comparisons with Sports Direct, and wondered why we did not have any Decathlon stores in the UK. Well, unbeknown to me, we do. I have since found out that Decathlon is a major French sporting goods chain, with stores located throughout the world. It started with a shop near Lille, France in 1976. It expanded to Germany in 1986, Spain in 1992 and the UK in 1999. It is a company that is growing rapidly, and in my opinion potentially poses a big threat to Sports Direct in the UK.

You need to ask yourself the question – ‘if there was a credible alternative to Sports Direct’, would I shop there at all? If there were a Decathlon in Chester, I would not be visiting my local Sports Direct in a hurry. There are other competitors, but they tend to be smaller, and more specialist, and often cannot compete on price (as per the Mary Portas article). But something of the size of Decathlon could seriously eat in to the dominance of Sports Direct.

There is nothing to stop Sports Direct transforming themselves into a retailer that delivers bargains AND a great experience. But whilst they can do one and not the other, why would they bother. Nothing lasts forever though! At the end of ‘bear hunt’ the children and their parents end up under the bed covers wishing they had never been on the hunt in the first place – could that happen to Sports Direct? Ignore the customer experience at your peril, or your customers will eventually stop coming back.

What do you think? I welcome your comments and debate.

‘Its simple – I just give my customers what they need and they keep coming back!’

In February 2012, I delivered a presentation to the University of Lancaster Management School. The session focussed on why putting
the customer at the heart of business strategy is evolving the Retail Industry around the globe. Essentially, it sums up my perception of what is going on in the high street. The audience was made of Lancaster’s MBA students who hail from all over the world.

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ – Justin King’s response

Many of you that read the blog post featuring the experience of Helen Kewell ( will be extremely interested to know if Sainsburys responded to the blog. You have probably guessed by the title of this post that they did. To their credit, Sainsburys responded very quickly, advising that it would be passed directly to their CEO, Justin King, who would get back to Helen and I personally.

I think that Mr King’s reply is very honest and open. I appreciate the time he has taken to both read and respond to Helen’s experience, and the fact that he is very keen to ensure no-one in the future experiences it again. Some would argue that this is exactly how any business leader should react when being made aware of poor customer experiences.

In order for you to form your own conclusion, you will need to read Mr King’s words for yourself – so here goes: (if you did not read the original story, do so first here –

Dear Mr Golding

Thank you for your email, bringing the very poor shopping experience of Mrs Kewell to my attention.  I would like to assure you, and Mrs Kewell, that this is certainly not the standard of service you should expect from Sainsbury’s and I am very disappointed you have both been left with a poor impression of us.

We always want to provide our customers with the highest standard of service ensuring shopping trips are easy and enjoyable for all our customers.  We do understand that some customers may struggle with certain situations or environments, hence our training materials place great emphasis on treating our customers as individuals.  I am therefore very disappointed to hear of Mrs Kewell’s experience in one of our stores.

Our colleagues should be polite and courteous to our customers, and certainly not make assumptions or dismiss their need for assistance.  We should strive to fulfil any requests from our customers, going the extra mile to deliver quality service and it is certainly not the responsibility of a single colleague to help with bag packing.  Our colleague on the checkout should have immediately offered packing assistance and slowed down to accommodate this.

We do monitor the scanning performance of our checkouts colleagues, however, colleagues are trained to moderate their speed to suit the needs of each individual customer and should slow down if they are asked to do so.  We also value the customer feedback we receive, as it shows us where we can improve, and our supervisor should have given Mrs Kewell’s complaint the serious attention it deserved.

I would like to apologise to Mrs Kewell personally and would welcome the opportunity to address this incident at the store in question.  I would therefore be grateful if you could reply with Mrs Kewell’s details, if she is happy for us to contact her, and the name of the store involved.  This will give us the chance to ensure there is never a repeat of this.

Customer service is at the heart of what we do and we go to great lengths to ensure our customers feel comfortable in our stores.  Our colleagues receive training focused on disability awareness, however, we are always looking for ways to develop this further.  We will certainly take your feedback on board and learn from Mrs Kewell’s experience.

I do appreciate you bringing this matter to my attention and I hope I have helped restore your faith in the service we provide to all our customers.  I look forward to hearing from you and hope we have the pleasure of serving you, and Mrs Kewell, for many years to come.

Yours sincerely

Justin King

So what do you think? Please let me know.

Hats off to you Boden……but it depends what you do with the insight!

On the day that a stalwart of the British High Street, Marks & Spencer, announces poor Christmas trading figures, I think it is apt that I should write a blog about another British retailer. In some respects Boden is very different to M&S – it is predominantly a distance retailer (catalogue and web) – but many of Boden’s customers will have, or still do shop at M&S as well. So what it is about Boden that has compelled me to write this blog?

Without giving away too much personal Golding information, the inspiration came to me whilst lying in bed with Naomi last night. It is not uncommon for Naomi to catch up on everything on her iPhone, whilst I read a book on my Kindle. It is also not uncommon for Naomi to relay all the things she is catching up on whilst I am trying to read. On occasion this can get slightly irritating – reading and listening cannot be done at the same time – well not by a bloke like me!. However, Naomi is often reciting things that are very interesting – and last night, she was telling me what she saw on Boden’s Facebook page.

Yesterday, Boden posted a question – it went like this:

“We love you all of course! But what is it you love (or hate) about Boden?”

In fact, here is the Facebook post itself.


Now this seems like a perfectly legitimate question. In fact, it is a very good question that most organisations would like to know the answer to. Many organisations attempt to find out the answer by installing customer feedback mechanisms. Customers are regularly asked to complete online surveys that literally ‘pop up’ in front of their very eyes, or are often sent emails asking them to participate. We have all seen them, but we only ever get to see the things we say or feedback. It is not a common occurrence to see an organisation ask for feedback in this way so publicly.

Do not get me wrong – this is in no way a criticism of Boden – in fact quite the opposite. I take my hat off to them for so openly and transparantley asking customers what they think (it is also a very low cost way of capturing feedback) – in a way that anyone can see the response. I am sure it will be very interesting for other retailers to see what customers are saying. In the screen shot of the Facebook page above, you can see some positive feedback – but let me show you some of the negative. Here are some ‘negative’ verbatims:

Love the mini Boden clothes not over keen on your prices,do you look how much other companies are selling same kinda a item for ?

Love MB but hate the prices.

I’d love to buy more boden but the prices are way to high and the quality is not that great. I work for a family who live in boden so wash and iron your clothes on a regular basis. They lose there shape quickly and wool items bobble so much so my son only wore his very expensive skull jumper twice.

Pay full price for mini Boden then a week later you reduce the price 😦

Love the clothes but irritating when a catalogue arrives, go online to order and all out of stock . Happens frequently.

Dislike the super skinny models

Mini Boden clothes are lovely, but find the trousers are too short in the waist for my tall girls, we always have to go a size or two bigger to get the length and  they get builders’ bums, because they are too big around the waist.  Did not buy anything from the women’s range this winter as the colours and patterns seemed dull compared to usual and not so quirky. For the price, I want something a bit different.

I could go on – but you get the point. This is incredibly powerful and insightful stuff for the powers that be at Boden. I will state again here that they are VERY brave in gathering feedback in this way. Now they have done it, there is no going back. Despite being such an admirable thing to do, it will completely worthless UNLESS Boden demonstrate to their customers what they are going to do with the information. It is all well and good asking for it, but if they fail to do anything with it, the effect will be potentially detrimental to their business. On the other hand, if Boden take this insight and act on the key themes in a way that they can communicate back to customers – it could be an incredibly powerful tool for Boden to drive greater loyalty with their customer base.

Asking for customer feedback is now extremely common in all industries. Demonstrating to customers what you have done with the feedback they give is unfortunately not very common. Boden have an opportunity here to show the way – to lead from the front and be as transparent with their actions as they are in asking customers what they think. Do nothing though, and this will be a very damp squib.

So for now, I have become an even greater fan of Boden (Naomi and I are both Boden customers) – but I await with interest to see what will come of the simple Facebook post from the 9th January 2013.

As always, your comments are welcome.

I’m not paying to park! Why the British high street might be struggling

I woke up this morning to see and hear reports about the continuing demise of the British high street. According to the media, up to 30 high street chain stores are closing on a daily basis. These stores are being replaced by pawnbrokers, bookmakers and charity shops. Here is one perspective from the Independent newspaper –

It is clear that the challenges of the economic climate have had a significant effect on changing the face of the British high street. All organisations, whether they be in retail or not, are having to assess the effectiveness and feasibility of their operations. A cost focus has meant that underperforming parts of organisations have had to be streamlined – for a retailer, regrettably this means that their ‘footprint’ has had to be reduced where possible.

So exactly what are the causes of this – can it all just be blamed on the economy? In my opinion, the causes are as follows:

1. Spiralling business rates – this is definitely a significant economic factor. I live in Chester in the North West of England. The business rates (so I am led to believe) are exorbitant. For those of you who have been to Chester, it is a historic town with a very historic shopping centre with the world-famous ‘rows’ – a two tier high street (see picture below). The ‘rows’ used to be bustling and full of individual specialist retailers. It was wonderful. Today, not only are many of the units empty, those that are occupied are occupied by national chains that can still make the Chester stores work. Why? individual retailers simply cannot afford the rates – big out-of-town supermarkets and a huge outlet village have made the consumer think twice about where to do their shopping. If the town centre offers nothing ‘different’, why bother going……this leads me on to my second point….

2. Car parking – the bane of any shoppers life. Not only is it difficult to find somewhere to park, when you, you are expected to pay through the nose for it. Chester have implemented a ‘free after 3’ parking policy in some car parks. Personally, I will only visit the town centre when I know I can park for nothing. The policy works – but what about the rest of the working day. The consumer now has more choice than ever before. They can visit the big supermarkets or the outlet villages and park for nothing – anytime. They can literally buy anything they want from anywhere in the world from the comfort of their living room. Why would you pay to park in the town centre that offers nothing different? This leads me on to my third point…

3. Where is the WOW? More than ever before, consumers want an experience – a positive, memorable experience in everything they do. Recognising that fact, one needs to question what kind of ‘end to end’ experience do many of our high streets now offer? The experience starts with being able to access the high street (parking, walking, public transport etc..) and ends in much the same way. In the middle are a number of elements that make up the full end to end ‘customer journey’. What kind of journey does your high street offer you? Today it is not great – queues of traffic to get to overpriced car parks. You then walk past empty shops and often dirty streets. You might be able to dine in a fast food restaurant before walking past a gang of youths on street corner to get back to your car before the parking ticket runs out. I am being a bit extreme here, but I am guessing you get the point.

A customer experience specialist in the US, Bruce Temkin, once taught me that there are three elements to any experience:

When you think about these elements for the high street, it does make it clear why there is a struggle. Is the British high street functional any more? Does it provide the basic things that the consumer wants? Is it accessible? It is certainly not as accessible as other options now available to the consumer. And the third one is the key one – how does shopping in the high street make the consumer feel? What is the emotional connection with the consumer? What is the consumer going to remember about their day out?

I think it is pretty clear-cut why the high street is suffering. The only way to help address the issues is for the key stakeholders to start working together – central and local government; retailers; local people – unless the high street can start to compete from a functional and accessible perspective, the only emotional element of the experience that the consumer will remember is not likely to be positive.

As always, I welcome any comments on this or any other of my blogs.

Who asked us? Is it right to suspend Sunday trading laws for the Olympics?

It was my good lady wife that drew my attention to the subject of this latest blog. ‘Did you know that from this Sunday the usual trading laws have been temporarily suspended for the Olympics?’ I truthfully had no idea. In fact, almost everyone I spoke to this weekend did not know either – was it supposed to be a secret?

For those of you who also missed it, here are the links to some of the reports in the press

The Daily Mail writes:

The Government has lifted the Sunday trading laws for shops in England and Wales with a floor area of more than 280 square metres(3000 sq.ft) from this Sunday to the end of the Paralympics. The longer hours have been welcomed by retailers but are ‘vehemently opposed’ by the shopworkers’ union Usdaw who said that there is no evidence it will aid the economy. Chancellor George Osborne however, maintained it was a benefit to the UK and warned against Britain ‘hanging up a Closed for Business sign’ in a bid to encourage traders to seize the opportunity to boost the economy.

What interests me in this subject, is that it does not appear that all ‘stakeholders’ in this rather important decision have been consulted effectively. One group in particular – the good old British consumer – seem to have been ignored…….or if not ignored, their views on the situation have just been assumed.

In my opinion, when any organisation makes a decision that will effect a number of stakeholders in a process, they should consider the affect of the decision on all of them. In this case, the decision is not just one of commercial gain. I do agree that retailers have struggled in the toughest of economic climates, but their struggles are down to many factors – and not being able to open for extended hours is not likely to be the greatest. Not meeting customer expectation consistently is of far greater significance.

This decision has far greater impact on people – and as stated in the Daily Mail, in this instance I tend to agree with Usdaw. We live in the most convenient world ever known. If you want something, you are very likely to be able to get it – whatever the day, whatever the time. The current restrictions on shop opening have little effect on that fact. This also means that the hardworking employee, even one working within retail, is able to benefit from a few more hours rest at the weekend. Is that such a bad thing? Do we really need the shops to be open longer on Sundays?

But this decision also goes further than the workers. As I have already said, what about us? What about the consumer? What do we think of this decision? Did anyone ever ask us? It does not appear to be the case, although I am happy to be proven wrong on this. Yesterday we decided that we needed a number of things (food etc) late the day – it was after 5pm. Our local supermarket has not yet taken advantage of the relaxation in the Sunday trading law. Was it the end of the world? Of course not. There are thousands of smaller shops all around the country who already more flexible opening hours on Sundays. I went to a small local store and got everything we needed. If our local Morrison’s had been open, this smaller store would have lost out. Has anyone thought about what might happen to the smaller retailer?

When investigating comments online about this government decision, it does appear that views are mixed. Some thing the decision is abhorrent, others believe that it is the right thing to do in our modern 24 hour economy. It would just have been nice if the biggest group of stakeholders had been asked first. The next time your organisation makes a decision, just question whether every stakeholders (both internal and external) viewpoint has been considered.

What do you think about this decision? Do you agree? You are very welcome to comment on any of my blogs.