WHEN TOMORROW COMES ...
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
Like most of us during the Coronavirus lockdown I'm working from home, and have just returned from my early morning, government-permitted walk-about, having passed umpteen boarded up and closed shops en route, While I walked, I thought; musing along the way about the future of retail after COVID-19.
MODERN CRISIS - retail in lockdown - Goodhood store, Shoreditch, London, England
In all honesty, apart from work commitments I had already been avoiding going "Up West’ well before lockdown took hold. The stores that I used to love had been looking sad and lacklustre long before quarantine. Few stores drew me in and genuinely excited me, Selfridges and Dover Street Market. being perhaps the most notable exceptions. The others, in my opinion, had ceased to make a real effort long ago, and therefore didn’t deserve my esteemed custom.
In recent years, many retailers have done little to encourage the supposed 'valued custom' of British consumers beyond price reductions., then, when retail faltered, held on-line shopping culpable for the decline in high street sales, thus validating their excuse for not trying. I thought Britain was The Nation of Shopkeepers? Where then are the inventive and creative window displays that seem to have been forgotten or deemed unnecessary, Fantastic product merchandising is virtually non-existent and outstanding customer service seems an old fashioned past idea. Is it a budget issue, lack of qualified staff, or simply lack of passion and imagination?
As an antidote to London's uninspiring West End, I’ve recently started to explore retail closer to my manor: north-east London. Hackney, Dalston, Islington and Shoreditch have provided a rich seam of exciting retail shops, many of them independents, such as Provisions on the Holloway Road and Goodhood on Shoreditch's Curtain Road. These are just a couple of businesses that still seem to be passionate about retail, striving to offer the customer a unique experience sadly forgotten by many of today's seemingly exclusively profit focused brands.
PROVISIONS - a passionate return to the art of groceries, on north London's Holloway Road
Taking a stroll down Redchurch Street in Shoreditch these days is a completely different experience to the same route even ten years ago - having been slowly reinvented: hip, laidback, respectful of its surroundings, now a unique shopping experience. Along with well-known retail brands, Aesop, J. Crew, Browns and Sunspel, the street is populated by many small independents such as Labour & Wait, and Timothy Everest. Redchurch Street now takes on an orchestral note, each store like an instrument, playing together in harmony and none blaring or playing out of sync. Subtle effective branding, store fronts in harmony, all sympathetic to the lo-fi street architecture, adding to the tune. Strangely, only one sharp jarring note trumpets out, that of Sweaty Betty, who appear to have missed the dress rehearsal! With a standard 'Shop-Front-Are-Us' aluminium frontage and hard synthetic looking decor, it jolts next door to Sunspel, its softer-looking neighbour. The store simply looks uneasy, out of place, like it doesn't belong there. Standing out on a street is great, but not if it's for the wrong reason.
The same shopping harmony can also be found on Lambs Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, a thoroughfare given over predominantly to male orientated retailers. A recent insurgence of delightful independent shops such as La Fromagerie, Oliver Spencer and Universal Works sit comfortably alongside the more established brands, J. Crew and Aesop. Interestingly, J. Crew have opted for a very understated store feel, signed very differently from the branding on their flagship store in Regent Street. This show of chameleon stealth allows them to blend in with their competitors and affords them the look of an individualistic independent - in keeping with the disposition of the clientele who visit the street (perhaps a lesson for Sweaty Betty here)?
I'm not pretending for one minute that creating a successful shopping environment is as simple as great window display, engaging staff and a pretty sign above the door. There are many other important and diverse factors to consider, including the external street environment for instance. North London's Holloway Road (where Provisions is based), is located in an area that has seen significant investment by the local council and Transport For London, resulting in wide pavements, Georgian shopfronts and trees lining the road. Great. And it enhances Provisions and their immediate neighbours. But walk a little further down the street and once past Waitrose that same investment appears to have gone pear shaped. The further you walk, the more unimaginative the facade of the shops become. Bland signage, dirty shopfronts and a total lack of effort by the retailers. One end of the same street couldn't be any more different from the other: in short, it's an abysmal shopping experience. I'm not suggesting that the area needs gentrifying to conform to a more middle-class taste, but that with just a little more effort by the retail establishments everyone's shopping experience could improve. After all, a pound is a pound no matter where it comes from.
Thinking more on this retail conundrum, I remembered times past, when a trip to the local high street of my 'youf' consisted of a veritable feast of independents: butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers sat happily alongside the 'big guns' such as Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury's and Burtons. These shops believed in customer service and sold product you could aspire to. In addition to shopping, my local high street was also a bustling social affair; a meeting place where people chatted, shopped, met for lunch and were generally inspired. Contrast those vibrant streets with the current, often formulaic 'plug-it-in-and-go' high street stores, and it strikes me that they were run by gutsy entrepreneurs rather than Excel spreadsheets, by managers who were empowered to make a local decisions rather than simply follow head office directives. And I'm sure it was all the richer for this independence.
I mentioned earlier that one of the stores that still excited me was Selfridges. Naturally, its exuberant product presentations, bright spacious shopping environment and inventive window displays play a vital part, but on my last visit (prior to lockdown), one gesture which cost zilch, really made a notable difference. On entering the store, Selfridges' doorman greeted me with 'Good Morning Sir, great to see you again.' That word 'again' stuck in my head.. Did he recognise me from previous visits (despite the multitude of Gandalf lookalikes that must pass his way daily)? I doubt it. Had I met him in a past life cavorting around a sweaty dancefloor imitating a Yorkshire Terrier on heat? Definitely not! But the use of that word 'again' was a highly effective way of making me feel that I belonged; I fitted in. Simple, effective and it cost Selfridges nothing, but it made me feel appreciated, welcome and subtly created loyalty for the brand.
I know that creative product presentation and offering the customer an outstanding shopping experience isn’t expensive, and the returns on sales, increased footfall and long-term customer loyalty far outweigh the initial (if any), expense. Since we are all currently locked up (and locked out of stores for the most part), the internet is our only retail escape. Maybe us visual people should collectively consider spending (slightly) less time on Netflix, and more time thinking about how we can use our unquestionable retail skills to make our high street stores vibrant and exciting when they re-open their doors.
I’m in no doubt that the retail industry will find it even more challenging once we’re all let out to play again. The simple fact is that if brands return to proper, exciting 'grass roots retail' and try harder to win our custom in the first place, they may just be surprised at how easy it is!
GOODHOOD - hero modern lifestyle brand, based in Shoreditch, East London
PROVISIONS can be found at https://provisionslondon.co.uk/
GOODHOOD can be found at https://goodhoodstore.com/