Shops and the personal touch


That friendly hardware store

Times are changing

There is no question that shopping has moved on in the last couple of decades. It has moved to out-of-town retail parks and it has moved on-line. As a result, many shop premises in the UK are empty, and the owners of those shops that remain are struggling with their businesses, just to keep afloat.

When town and village shopping areas on what used to be the main drag dwindle away, so does the sense of community. People always used to feel that they belonged in the area they lived; a sort of neighbourhood spirit. All that gets lost when shopping moves away. It even affects the other centres of gathering such as community centres, and the local pub is not what it was in terms of old-fashioned gatherings of friends.

Queen of Shops

Even Government has recognised that there is a social change as a result of the drift from the High Streets. We have had a very commendable report from Mary Portas, “Queen of Shops”, as to how to cut through the bureaucracy and red tape and also to change the thinking of the local authorities.

Even so, local shop owners need to think how to engage their customers so that they “belong”. It is all about getting a following, and in a way it is the same process as getting one on Twitter or Facebook. Businesses have to be interesting, and chatty, and when they discuss their products it needs to be in a friendly helpful way, with no blatant selling.

Getting personal

My own local village has two major supermarket companies who have small stores by their standard. It is not really fair to our local (franchise-owner) grocer, but that is life. However the four obviously successful shop businesses in our local community all have one things in common, and that is the personal touch.

A while back I mentioned our local Chinese takeaway.  Actually, we have two, but only one cooks your food to order in front of you. People love to watch.

Then we have the bakery. That is quite a distinction from a bread shop, which just buys in its products. If you pass the bakery in the small hours (I don’t very often) you can see the bread being baked. All food shops of this sort probably need to buy in a certain amount, but if we can say that what we buy is locally produced that induces that sense of belonging. The bakery staff also recognise their customers and chat, again making a connection we don’t get in the supermarket.

In our village, we get the same experience in the fish-and-chip shop as in the bakery. The staff are friendly, and we can see our food being freshly cooked.

The fourth great business is the hardware store. One might expect they would struggle against the out-of-town retail and DIY outlets. Their secret is that their staff are so helpful. If you cannot see an item you want, they can usually find it somewhere. If not they can order it. If you need a special light bulb for your granny’s night light they will find it and fit it for you. They are more expensive than the big store in the shopping park, but you get great service, and save the cost of expensive fuel.

Old-fashioned value

What do all these businesses give you? That’s right: value for money, that feeling that they what they offer is worth paying for. They can charge more than the big outlets because they have to in order to be profitable, but they also have a loyal customer base. That is known as goodwill, and it is so important.

In a sense, these businesses over-deliver, or at least they appear to. That extra personal touch is so important in keeping the loyalties of all our customers, whether or not we are High Street businesses Those that run shops in the High Street or village street can still make it once again the Main Drag, but it will take that personal touch.

Do you remember to get personal in your business?


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Shopping habits and the High Street

Instant gratification is the name of the game, and no, I am not talking about anything sleazy. Just as I was saying recently that the advertising tradition of two hundred years is outdated, so is the traditional High Street specialist shop. When I was a child we had in our village a draper, two ladies’ dress shops, and one that sold table linen and curtains.

The local shops that do well in most places are those which sell something we need right then, such as my favourite baker (because he is good), perhaps the newsagent though supermarkets are encroaching on their territory, and the fast food shops – the instant gratification shops. Those that struggle are those who do not sell things we need frequently (I nearly said every day but you would then think I lived on takeaways). Having a local gift shop or a china shop is OK if you are selling on-line, building a reputation and need a hands-on show case for some clientele. Having a gift shop with no on-line business is pretty hopeless.

We have an independent retailer with a shop full of  TVs, sound systems, gadgets and radios in our village. How do they compete against the big shopping park chains? Well, they don’t. They have a nice shop but the vast majority of the sales are mail order on-line or over the telephone and they have carved out their own niches.

Sadly those who always wanted to run a toy shop will have to make it a niche shop with a major on-line retail capacity. Of course the lack of real shops in any community lessens the sense of belonging, and means we are less likely to bump into our friends and neighbours than we used to. We did see our plumber in the village today, but there are far fewer shoppers than there used to be.

We have so much choice now so we should not knock progress even in the retail world, but gone are the days when my Mum could say “I’m going to the village and I’ll pop into Miss Shelley’s to see if she has a summer frock I like in my size”. That’s the price for a loss of innocence.

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