While the American economy might be heading towards recession, New York still remains the epicentre of the retail world.
So a visit last weekend was a good opportunity to take the temperature of retailing in the Big Apple.
It won’t be helping the rest of the US, but the most striking aspect of shopping in the city was the extraordinary number of Brits there. In Macy’s and Bloomingdales, it was impossible to move for Essex boys stocking up on pastel-coloured Ralph Lauren Polo shirts and girly groups living the Sex and the City dream. By comparison, the more genteel Saks was sedate and no one appeared to be buying.
On Fifth Avenue, the miracle of Abercrombie lives on. The staff are sexy and the store is sexy – but the customers are anything but. Gaggles of tourists formed queues to get in, then wandered the dark store squinting at printouts from its web site to try and find the merchandise their kids had requested. Hardly surprising when its UK prices are so scandalously high compared with the US.
In the food arena, a trip to Whole Foods at Columbus Circle was a joy. My sister, who is fortunate enough to count the store as her local supermarket, explained that the 100-plus queue that snaked around the store was a common occurrence, but it moved pretty quickly. The execution was miles ahead of the UK version in Kensington and so was the number of shoppers.
While the idyll of brilliant service in the US remains a myth in New York – the best are better than the UK, but the surliness of some staff needs to be seen to be believed – one experience stood out. And it is one that gives an interesting insight into the culture of a business that might well change the shape of UK retailing.
Having dragged my sister to have a look around Best Buy in Soho, she wanted to use the bathroom. Not only did the friendly but not overbearing assistant lead her to it, but afterwards, she stopped us on the shopfloor and asked my sister if her experience was satisfactory. Imagine that happening at a Currys.digital.
A pale imitation?
Marks & Spencer’s ambitious plans to increase floorspace are highlighted again on the front page of this week’s Retail Week. Much of this space is set to come through franchises, which passes the costs of setting up the stores to the franchisee.
It all makes good sense, but M&S needs to be careful that the franchisees keep the stores up to the standards of the main chain. Too often, staff aren’t engaged and the stores lack TLC – in the stores at Victoria Station, for example, most of the Chip and Pin pads are held together with masking tape.
Running small, high-traffic stores isn’t easy. But the M&S brand is strong and needs to be protected.