This article was written for the Croydon Citizen in October 2013
It’s no secret; high streets around the country are being squeezed by online sites and superstores delivering shopping to the door, making it simple and affordable to order from your armchair. This ‘Amazon effect’ has dramatically impacted the state of the high street, with 14% vacancy rates and an influx of pound shops and charity shops. Once started, this is a vicious circle that is very hard to reverse – retailers are replaced by short-term, reduced-rent occupants such as charity shops, which make the high street less and less attractive to customers, meaning less footfall, and further closures. Indeed, the bulk of our investigation has centred around Orpington High Street, which has been mocked by many, including a Honda advert and recently the Mail, in an article called ‘Charity Shop High Street’.
It’s not anyone’s fault, and ‘digital’ has descended upon us all with stealth and vigour in a matter of a few years. The fact is that many retailers and small businesses were taken by surprise and whilst busy with stock takes, shop windows and good old fashioned customer service, their footfall was steadily declining. It’s a huge ask for a ‘butcher of thirty years’, for example, to suddenly embark on online advertising and social media, particularly using these new fangled mobile type things. The fact is that the ‘common household’ will often be pressed for both cash and time, and so will tend to favour a single superstore, or get things delivered to their home, whilst catching up on Downton Abbey. Where does that leave Mr Butcher, with his fantastic advice for how to cook the perfect steak and his end-of-day clearance of a few pork chops? Could he sell these to the busy commuter passing by on their way home? Probably, but how would they ever know that these few pork chops are going for a song?
On our year-long journey around high streets and small businesses, we’ve also encountered a resistance to social media and plain blank looks when the subject is raised. Then there are the have-a-go retailers with their Twitter and Facebook accounts which proudly give them a window to the online world, but very rarely do they provide return on investment of either time or money. They may have 300 followers, or a selection of likes for the image of a cat eating a cake, but are these people popping in to the store and making a purchase? This approach works well for big brands and national chains – relate to the enticing melted cheese on a sumptuous burger, and you’re probably minutes away from your heart’s desire, wherever you are. Local businesses like the restaurants, beauty parlours, andconvenience stores that we’ve seen so far on Kake’s London Road series are reliant on bringing in those people already on their doorstep – something that has been notoriously difficult to do, even for the likes of Mr Zuckerberg.
On our travels, we have witnessed an ever-increasing gulf in local marketing activity, designed to combat the reducing footfall. On one hand there are leaflets, posters, directories and circulars, and on the other there are pay-per-click and deal aggregators. Few of these options, however, effectively engages the potential customer here and now, and none give the freedom to actually advertise a deal for a local Croydon Zumba class as no-one has booked today, or the five plates of salmon at one of Croydon’s fine drinking establishments that is going out of date tomorrow.
One more gripe/observation if I may? The current options for social media, local deals, community building etc, usually focus on a one-size-fits-all, and advertising is offered by location or if you are tech savvy, by interest and profile. We believe that ‘local knows local’ – the Croydon High Street retailer will know where their ideal customer is, but currently has limited ways to build up a rapport and start a dialogue with them. As an example, the sports shop in the high street knows that the optimum audience is the running club that meets on the nearby field. Short of standing by the lamppost on Tuesday nights handing out leaflets, there aren’t many options, until now…