Indies need to cluster; Paul Turner Mitchell at Townstock

When I was asked to speak about energising the indie retail community, I took a look at many high streets and thought about bringing a defibrillator. ‘Energising’ certainly isn’t the term I’d use, as many retailers and high streets are now in urgent need of shock treatment to keep them alive. It’ll take a lot more than an energy boost to save some high streets. There really is a need for Lazarus style miracles. But miracles can happen.

We know over recent weeks and months, we’ve seen some big name retail insolvencies and today with the weak retail sales figures many are now predicting a triple trip recession. Many retailers are quite literally fighting for their lives.

Whilst there are extraordinary times, extraordinary times warrant extraordinary measures and from where I stand – as someone who has long campaigned for and championed the rise of independents – we’re starting to see the beginnings of a culture shift and acceptance that indies have to work together.

Whether it be the setting up of co-ops to market, promote and advertise independent businesses, the widespread participation in Independents’ Day or the growth of totally locally campaigns in towns and villages across the country, there is now a real appreciation of independents and our stock is rising.

Despite the fact we are facing some of the most economically challenging conditions many of us can remember, during the first half of 2012 more independent shops were opened than were closed down. Over 850 new indies appeared on our high streets. Compare that with the net closure of nearly 1,000 multiple shop closures.

There is a sense of momentum now and we have to build on that. It’s great seeing glossy supplements wax lyrical about the best independent shops in some of our major cities. And it’s wonderful reading about the deep love of independents in places like Totnes, Hay on Wye and Hebden Bridge. But we can’t rely on warm sentiment alone to transform our high streets. The momentum that’s building with independent shops needs to become a movement.

To do that we need more independents coming together under a common umbrella to create a powerful identity.

If you run a great indie or you want to start one then you need to think beyond your business. You need to think about how you connect with other independents and how you can work together to make the high street a better place. One great fashion indie alone won’t change the high street. Chances are it’ll be heavily reliant on the fortunes of other shops. But bring a dozen great fashion indies together and you have the beginnings of a real destination.

British industry understands the importance of clustering. Science, technology and manufacturing sectors all get it. It’s time independents did the same and reaped the benefits.

Clustering creates competitive and co-operative dynamics that are lost to shops in isolation. Sharing information about new products and processes helps create innovation. And working together helps develop a strong, shared identity. In Southwark, for example, Great Suffolk Street’s parade of independent shops has their own website. Towns all over the country are starting to do this but it’s reliant on successful clusters.

In my own town of Rochdale there are some great independent shops. But there is no natural link between them; they’re too spread out and people struggle to find them.

Jump to Los Angeles though and businesses contribute $3million annually to support the Fashion District Business Improvement District, which spans 100 blocks.

Britain might not have quite as entrepreneurial a culture as America but it does have some great entrepreneurs. And one of the secrets behind their success I’m frequently told is the need for a great mentor. Every successful person has had a mentor; everyone needs someone to talk to and bounce ideas off, someone you go to for advice, someone you trust to guide you in the right direction.

Warren Buffet had Ben Graham, Plato had Socrates. Luke Skywalker had Yoda. All great mentors.

Establishing this culture in retail will take some time but it’s encouraging to see signs of progress. Some of the winning Portas pilots are offering mentoring services and Retail Ready People are offering mentoring and support to help 16-25 year olds set up a business on the high street.

Developing these kind of networks, ensuring that knowledge is passed on and inspiration shared is critical to foster the kind of retail culture we need to build sustainable high streets.

Because right now retailers are working through a number of survival strategies: deep discounting, downsizing and promotions are the common ones. But arguably the one strategy everyone should be looking at is greater collaboration.

Collaboration drives innovation and saves money. Many people in our sector have failed to grasp this, but there are plenty who do. It still astonishes me that the latest Retail Fraud study revealed that 22% of retailers believe collaboration at any level is unnecessary.

Imagine if other sectors adopted this mindset. The car industry, which has benefitted greatly from manufacturers sharing costs, would never have witnessed collaborations with the likes of Jaguar and Land Rover creating thousands of jobs in the process. This is the kind of innovative collaboration that retail must match if it’s to remain competitive and relevant.

Just as other industries have ultimately been forced to collaborate because of market pressure, so too will our sector. At the moment unnecessary pressure is being placed on the indie from within. Brands traditionally associated with indies, which give them a point of difference on the high street, are now springing up left right and centre on the online platforms of some of the biggest multiples. Often the collections are available to purchase through those channels long before they reach the indie. These multiples clearly do not value the indie, the role we play within the industry and the diversity we bring to the high street. It is simply about the bottom line for them. As a single indie it is hard to stand up to this but the collective buying power of indies is immense – and we need to use this strength.

But it’s not just about collaborations with other retailers and suppliers that can help make our sector more resilient; there’s a crying need for a more collaborative relationship with local and central Government.

The Government’s Portas Review finally achieved something that no other retail initiative has managed. Miles and miles of column inches and the recognition that the British high street has national treasure status.

But has it cemented a better relationship between independents and Government? I don’t think so. Despite much wringing of hands and pouring over recommendations, the key concerns threatening our sector remain the same.

Business rates were subject to the biggest increase in 20 years this April at the height of a recession. Did it really take a seven month long Government Review to tell you this is not how to support our high streets?

And despite brochures being issued from Government departments on the need for a good balance of independents on the high street, the Government’s recently announced National Town Team doesn’t have one single independent on board.

Where is Government recognition of our contribution to healthy high streets? Multiple retailers closed on average 20 stores a day across Great Britain in the first half of this year whereas the number of new independents would be enough to fill 4 or 5 small towns with new stores. Yet still, far too often our voice is drowned out and we are sidelined.

It is worth commenting on the money that has been invested by Government into the high street under their Portas Pilot scheme.

The gap between the huge amount of column inches, carefully polished PR and overblown rhetoric about turning our high streets into the beating heart of our communities and the funding commitment made by Government to address this problem is huge. The reality is we’re talking paltry sums that won’t make a huge difference. The Government actually spent four times the amount they spent on Portas Pilots for last year’s Alternative Vote referendum. That itself speaks volumes.

And it’s time we raised the volume too and spoke more as a collective, as a powerful group on the high street that has a key stake in its future. Whether it be on out of town planning decisions, completely out of touch business rate valuations or how the withdrawal of credit insurance is threatening our ability to trade, we need Government to start to hear and act on the day-to-day challenges facing independents.

Independents are often guilty of hiding our light under a bushel, from sharing best practice to shouting out about what our sector needs. But now, more than ever, we need to put our best foot forward and champion what we’re about.

And as the Olympic street market debacle in East London shown us, it is not enough to pitch up shop and hope people will come. It’s not enough to just open your doors and rely on passing trade. Getting the right kind of marketing and promotion is absolutely crucial.

Towns need to look at ongoing high street promotions. In Wigan, for example, a retail and transport collaboration offers free travel to the shops for all the family if any member of the household travels by bus to the football. Customers also get tailored offers based on personal interests by text messages or by inserting smart cards into touch points in the town centre.

Shops also need to look at better online marketing to bring people into their shops. 360-degree Google business tours are a great way for indies to offer customers an enticing peak into their business and showcase new products. And collaborations with other indies can be incredibly complimentary. We’ve recently teamed up with an independent coffee shop, for example, who are now located upstairs. So when people are trying on prom dresses or waiting for alterations to be made we can get drinks brought down to them or let them take time out. It makes the shopping experience more relaxing and fun.

Independents are better together. It’s no secret that thriving shopping areas in our country have a high concentration of independents. A shining example not far from here is Hebden Bridge. 103 shops. Just 4 empty. 86% of those shops are independent. Equally it’s no secret that innovation across our sector is patchy and best practice generally goes unshared. It’s also well known that a huge amount of uncertainty clouds our horizons. According to recent reports, more than half of the UK’s independent retailers are worried about the year ahead, as sales at fashion indies fell below the national average. These are certainly extraordinary times and only the collaborative will survive and thrive.

Paul Turner-Mitchell is Director of Rochdale independent fashion boutique 25 Ten. As a retail commentator and indie champion, he has written for national and trade press including The Guardian, and appeared at conferences and workshops across the UK. This speech was given at Townstock, a two day event which brought together community projects and independent retailers, high street brands like Morrisons and Boots, council leaders and national organisations like the Community Development Foundation and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies.

4 responses to “Indies need to cluster; Paul Turner Mitchell at Townstock

  1. Insightful and inspiring post – Thanks Paul.
    We recently pulled together a group of Cambridgeshire based Indie Retailers for a Portobello Road Pop-Up shop and having the diversity of products – clothing, shoes, furniture and interior pieces – was a huge draw card for customers.

    So true that ‘extraordinary times warrant extraordinary measures’. The perfect opportunity to get involved and collaborate.

  2. Great post and this clustering fits very much with what we are trying to do with a new business called Gifteze that lets local, independent businesses have their own gift voucher scheme. We set it up for free, advertise it on our site, pay upfront less a small commission. We think that gift vouchers are a missed opportunity for small businesses and that by putting lots of them on one site we can help local high street stay active and filled with interesting businesses.

  3. Very encouraging Paul. I wish I could have been there to hear you and the others. From the various tweets it sounds like it was an excellent and well organised event.

  4. Pingback: The Joy of Clustering·

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