Thursday 20 June 2019 4:03 pm

Fix the High Street

Paul Blanchard is founder of global reputation management practice Right Angles, host of the Media Masters podcast and author of Fast PR

I spend a lot of my life on the move. I live near Milton Keynes, my office is in London, and I spend half my time visiting our bases in New York and Los Angeles. I’ve got a lot of air miles, a screwed-up body clock and a ruthlessly controlled diary – as well as a wife who, to her credit, remembers who I am! As a result, I don’t get a lot of time to go shopping, and I rely more than I should on online retailers. But I fall into the classic trap of being time-poor and needing the convenience they can offer – and I feel guilty about it too.

Yes, online retailers offer convenience, range and value, and that’s a powerful concoction. But, as my friend and client Martin Newman keeps telling me, the high street isn’t dead – and if bricks-and-mortar retailers get more right, then they can not only compete, but outshine their virtual counterparts by providing an immersive shopping experience and societal value that the online world struggles to match. He’s gradually winning me round, and so I was curious to see his new video series, Fix the High Street.

Martin’s idea is really simple: it starts with the well-tested ‘mystery shopper’ routine. With a hidden camera, he goes into different retailers and businesses in his home city of Glasgow, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and London, and attempts to experience what the everyday shopper finds, whether that’s trying to buy a car or eating out. Add to this his expert appraisal afterwards, and I began to see shopping in a new light!

I’m the sort of person who believes that most of humanity is basically benign (despite all the evidence the world shows me to the contrary). When I go shopping, I tend to think that retail staff will be basically friendly, open, professional and well-informed. Of course, this expectation is even greater when I travel to the States, which is famous for its customer service, and where Martin will turn his lens next. The question you’re waiting to be answered, then, is: was I right?

It’ll disappoint you when I say: yes and no. Perhaps it’s partly self-selecting. Newcastle has a reputation as a friendly town, and Martin is Glaswegian so he’ll meet a warmer reception than I necessarily would, with my charming Yorkshire burr. Even so, though, the staff that I saw greeting Martin and his team were cheerful and polite in the main, the sort of people you want to encounter when you’re shopping (but, God knows, you don’t always). They didn’t generally seem dispirited or demotivated, just ploughing through a ‘McJob’, but actually seemed engaged, or able to feign engagement, with the company they work for and the product they’re selling.

There’s a but, isn’t there? Yes, I’m afraid there is. A lot of the workers were pleasant and smiling, but some had really very little knowledge of their product or services, no expertise to go that extra mile to up-sell, or any autonomy to make decisions which might encourage a sale. They lacked a kind of engagement in the retail process, and that’s a huge tactical error by the retailer. If a salesperson can’t make decisions, has to refer the smallest thing up the management chain for clearance, or is uncertain and poorly briefed, it will show instantly, and discourage the shopper from making a purchase. It’s ever more the case that purchasing decisions are made on the spur of the moment with the smallest of motivations tipping the balance, so retailers can’t afford to be giving away this kind of competitive edge.

Martin’s purpose isn’t just to name and shame high street retailers. It’s genuinely to “fix” them. In his series, he rates his experiences out of 10, and explains what could be done better, more efficiently, more effectively, what would make the business more customer-centric. His lodestar is the recovery of the high street as a viable retail force, so he really does want to help, and his 30 years of experience makes his advice invaluable. He gets it. I hope people watch his video to see what it’s all about, but I really hope that retailers, both those featured and more broadly, watch it to assess the health of their sector. There are hints and tips for commercial success there – you just have to want to grab them.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.