Get the popcorn ready for next Monday, when retail tycoon Mike Ashley will meet MPs to set out his thoughts – no doubt robustly – on how to rescue the troubled high street.
It’s part of his new crusade to “save as many stores and jobs as possible” after buying retailers such as House of Fraser and Evans Cycles out of administration.
In the wake of such deals, Ashley has become embroiled in rows with landlords over terms for the shops he now controls – he has even threatened mall owner Intu with the closure of all of his shops, regardless of fascia, in its centres.
“While Ashley will no doubt ride his particular hobbyhorses, let’s hope that his contribution is not solely self-interested”
Retail property owners, as well as other targets such as the unfair business rates regime, will no doubt be in Ashley’s sights next week.
“I believe politicians and landlords should be doing more to save our struggling high streets, so I intend to make the most of this opportunity to make a real difference,” he says.
While Ashley will no doubt ride his particular hobbyhorses, let’s hope that his contribution is not solely self-interested.
It’s welcome that such a high-profile retailer, admittedly a controversial character, is taking the fight to ensure healthy high streets and town centres direct to the politicians.
They have too often shown themselves indifferent to the forces shaping retail, and the communities it serves and creates jobs for.
New lease of life
That said, the retail industry cannot rely on the powers that be to wave a magic wand on their behalf. While many high streets are under huge pressure, too much talk of ‘saving’ them can be self-defeating.
The danger is that retail talks itself down, reinforcing the wrong idea that it is an industry with an uncertain future, dependent on intervention by Parliament and in thrall to forces beyond its control such as the rise of digital commerce.
The pressure for fair rates must be maintained, but retailers must be active participants themselves in forging a new future for high streets. Some of the recent collapses – House of Fraser included – are the result as much of a failure to adapt as they are of unhelpful policy.
The best retailers have always been smart readers of consumers’ changing needs and wants, and found new ways of making themselves relevant. Boots, for instance, ran a lending library right up until the 1960s.
It’s a great historical example of how retailers reflected the interests and aspirations of their times but, as it seems to be accepted that in future there will be fewer shops in many town centres, perhaps it is also a reminder that there are ways retailers can transform their shops into new types of destination as well as product purchase points.
What would be the 21st century equivalent of the lending library? Retailers that can discover extra purpose for their branches can help not just to ‘save’ high streets, but give them a new lease of life.
New technology must also surely be at the heart of ensuring a future for shops, and it may take all sorts of forms. The mission of tech start-up Trouva, for instance, is to help consumers “discover unique products from the best local independent boutiques” by providing small shops with a digital platform.
“The whole industry can help itself by relentlessly searching for new ways of being convenient and relevant”
And Google is working with another start-up, NearSt, which links products in local shops with Google search, so consumers can find shops locally that sell what they are looking for, check availability and even find the best route to the store.
In future, you could even imagine Amazon, which has a growing interest in bricks and mortar, devoting some of its intellectual firepower to ways of using technology that benefit not just its own stores, but also the localities in which they operate – and therefore surrounding businesses.
The high street may not be in the rudest of health, but it ain’t dead yet.
Ashley will do everyone a favour if he can impress on the MPs what they can do to ensure continued vibrancy.
But the whole industry can help itself by relentlessly searching for new ways of being convenient and relevant, and by seizing new technological opportunity rather than – as some do now – primarily fearing it.