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Today retail expert Mary Portas has released a comprehensive report that deals with the health of Britain’s high street, advising the government on steps that should be taken to ensure its survival in the face of changing consumer behaviour.
In a press conference held at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) this morning, Portas said that, "Despite speculation this is not about surpressing other forms of retail."
Over the past week Portas has lent her weight to battling the suggested increase in West End parking fees for evenings and weekends, branding them ‘madness’.
The report dishes out a stark warning against this, while covering bus fare rates, year-round planning by shop owners and reassessing store vacancies. It includes 28 action points that can be implemented by government, local authorities and businesses to help high streets deliver something new.
At the press conference she also said that "communication, collaboration and compromise" were the three most important things to keep in mind.
But what of the link to e-commerce? In her column in The Telegraph, published late last night, Portas gives the slightest of nods to the growth of shopping online.
The phenomenal growth of online retailing, the rise of shopping by mobile, the speed and sophistication of the major national and international retailers, the epic and immersive experiences offered by today’s new breed of shopping mall, combined with a crippling recession, have all conspired to change today’s retail landscape. New expectations have been created in terms of value, service, entertainment and experience against which the average high street has, in many cases, failed to deliver.”
If this is all about collaboration, where’s the advice on linking offline to online?
The report contains just three references to digital. The first, a book by De Kare Silver that explains that this is, “gradually ceasing to be a bricks and mortar world” but then goes on to discuss the creation of 21st century urban entertainment centres like Westfield. The second is a footnote to that quote.
The last shows more promise. Under the section about creating a ‘town team’, which she describes as a “visionary strategic and strong operational management structure for high streets”, Portas suggests that this could also be represented “virtually via a community digital portal facilitating a frank and creative exchange of views between stakeholders.”
An online portal would allow people to share information, volunteer for local schemes, including those who hold specialised knowledge, develop local delivery networks or simply access essential local services. As such the Town Team meets in real time online to progress the daily and longer term needs and aspirations of their community.”
Knowledge sharing is a great idea, but where’s the advice on building your own website? Using social media? Integrating m-commerce? Perhaps Portas feels that baby steps are the answer, or that Britain’s high streets aren’t ready for this. Perhaps she isn’t confident enough in her own ability to comment in this area.
Maybe we’ll see her launch a supplementary chapter to this in the coming months, but for the time being I’m left wondering why the government’s digital champion Martha Lane Fox wasn’t involved in this? For all of the promise of a focus on creating "multi-functional social and shopping”, why wasn’t this report itself co-written or at least drafted with the input of experts in an obviously complimentary field?
As Anton Gething, co-founder and product director at social commerce company nToklo points out, it's just not as simple as finding a way for physical retail outlets to exist, but about better integration of all the customer engagement channels.
While there is much discussion of the death of the high street in recent years, ultimately, people want to touch and see things and this is borne out by the growth of Apple’s retail outlets across the UK, for example. This Christmas has also seen eBay trial a physical store in central London and arguably most interesting is the House of Fraser store in Aberdeen that has no products, simply free coffee and assistants with iPads. There are still tough times ahead for many town centres across the UK and how the nut is cracked is not quite clear, but better integration between online and offline is a must if retailers are to succeed.”