As the great retail shake-out continues, hastened rather than precipitated by the coronavirus lockdown, so we are seeing thousands lose their jobs.

Many skilled retailers – with experience of head office as well as the shop floor – are currently surplus to requirement. Will they be lost forever? I hope not. I believe there should be a concerted effort to keep them and harness their knowledge to revitalise the high street.

We should start laying the foundations for this now. I suggest we will need the government to engage, the property sector to play its part and those of us still in the industry should be ready to add our support.

“There is a desire for our town centres to sit at the heart of their communities and good retail, serving the local consumer, should be an integral part of this”

The time is ripe to encourage a new breed of retail entrepreneurs: there is a surfeit of empty properties; consumers are reassessing their priorities, creating new wants and needs; and there is a movement towards shopping local. We now have a pool of talent that is well placed to create, and staff, the formats of the future.

Importantly, these new formats will be rooted in physical retail with all the theatre and personal contact that entails. Consumers may have grown used to shopping online but there has also been yearning for a more fulfilling experience – one that cannot be satisfied by just clicking buttons.

Strong bonds

If the last 10 years or so have been characterised by ‘pureplay’ and ‘tech-first’ business, so I believe the next 10 will see a marrying of the digital and the physical. All new businesses will have a digital element and our new entrepreneurs will need to be savvy enough to harness the online. But what will characterise a successful retailer in the future is the quality of its interaction with the consumer, which will come through face-to-face contact and the whole shopping experience as much as a witty email or well taken photograph.

However, for this to happen there must be a shift in our relationship with the property sector. There is a desire for our town centres to sit at the heart of their communities and good retail, serving the local consumer, should be an integral part of this. But at the moment, long leases, upward-only rent reviews and high rates are discouraging new entrants.

Some of this change will require legislation, especially in terms of the Landlord and Tenant Act and the whole rating system – how about a rates holiday for a new business as it finds its feet? – but also, we need a new attitude from property owners. I suggest landlords should start to work in partnership with their tenants, sharing in the ups and downs of business. This should mean more turnover rents and shorter, flexible leases.

“We need to ensure that our new business owners have a good grounding in all the aspects of running a company”

In this spirit of partnership, I think it is important that we set up a process for investing in and mentoring our new retailers. Again, to look back at the tech industry through the course of this century, there has been a very definite process to introduce those with the ideas to the people with the money and the experience, who can then guide and nurture.

Perhaps there is a role here for our retail organisations and the various trade associations? Or maybe some old alliances could be reformed? There have been many strong bonds and friendships developed over the years in this industry, now could be the time to work together again but with a more altruistic bent.

There is also a role for the training providers. We need to ensure that our new business owners have a good grounding in all the aspects of running a company. In essence, it is about finding the right balance between product, process and finance. I would suggest that many of those who have failed were too skewed towards one of those three elements.

The coronavirus has been, in many cases, likened to an invader, a malignant force, with which we have had to battle. It has been a ‘war’. While it is not yet won, we are coming out the other side. It is time to start planning for ‘the peace’ and working out how we can revitalise our sector.

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