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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2399

The Slow Death of British High Street: the need of a retail visionary

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

In 2009, when asked about the prospect of Apple iPhone in a TV interview, which had been introduced for the first time by Steve Jobs a few months earlier, Steve Ballmer, the then CEO of Microsoft, burst into an eerie laughter by quipping, “$500 dollars for a phone that hasn’t even got a keyboard, “while adding, “Are you kidding?” in the same breath.

Not only did Mr Ballmer’s delusional miscalculation cost the company that he was heading dear on many fronts in the long run, but also hastened his exist on a fairly sour note few years later, despite being a giant – the first ever billionaire employee in a company - in the ever growing technological sector for decades.

When you look at the challenges faced by the well-known retail chains in the British High Street for their own survival, one really wonders whether they are also led by the individuals in Ballmer’s calibre, because no constructive strategy seems to be in place to revive the High Street from its current predicament, let alone in bringing it back to the good old days, when the need for timely action is urgent as never before.

>The flawed prophesy that haunts Steve Ballmer:

Two weeks ago, I was in a London Suburb, which once was a vibrant shopping centre: the shoppers seem to have deserted the place, with plenty of shops being boarded up and a significant part of the rest being occupied by the vendors who sell cheap, imported stuff, barbers, nail bars, coffee shops and beauty salons; just add the shops that sit dormant to this picture, it is not something pleasant to look at.

In this context, the media does not exaggerate things, when they say that the gloomy outlook is universal – across the country – when they quote the average rate of shop closure at 10 to 15 a day.

When the army of retailers are in urgent need of a shot in the arm, a section of the same equation has been shooting in the foot, by hiking the rents and making the parking places inaccessible to many shoppers. The short-term, knee-jerk measures, meanwhile, have accelerated the decline, instead of reversing the trend.

Of course, most of the retail giants that face severe challenges either underestimated the potential of the internet when it comes to wooing shoppers or were simply clueless to find out a way to keep the threat at bay.

Adding insult to injury, the combination of playing to the gallery of shareholders at the expense of customer sensitivities, turning to low-paid contractors instead of hiring long-term, properly-trained staff and trivializing the loyalty of customers, is taking its toll on the High Street giants in a significant way.

In short, most of the retail giants, if not all, failed to evolve in proportion to the challenges posed by the online trading. The rigid stubbornness on the part of the decision-making bodies of certain retail giants, when it comes to evolving, has no place among the technology-savvy, huge audience of British shoppers. No do they get a sympathetic hearing from the very people, when the former moan about the dwindling prospects in the process of staying relevant.

A few retailers have shown this suicidal trend in the past – for reasons only known to them: Marks and Spencer, for instance, did not accept credit cards up until late nineties. I remember, as newspapers reported at that time, when late Princess Diana turned up into one of its stores in the City of London, she couldn’t buy what she wanted by using her credit card, as she did not carry cash with her at that time.

Although, Marks and Spencer – a respected global brand with a renowned customer service to match it – slowly embraced the online shopping, it was too little, too late, when it comes to leaving its mark in the online realm.

Three are a few success stories, though. The House of Fraser, for instance, has come up with a very successful online store to keep its regular customers happy and engaged with its products. The clothing giant, with an evolving online store, will certainly take on its competitors with this constructive strategy of embracing the e-commerce, rather than kicking against it while wasting resources on a losing battle.

Unfortunately, it remains a mystery why the decision makers of other retail chains never learned a lesson from booming online giants like Amazon and eBay; they collectively form a paradise of innovation in marketing, while earning the unwavering trust of customers.

Against this backdrop, the value of pound has fallen in value relative to the US$ and it hardly helps the struggling retailers, which rely on imports.

As the mountain of challenges and difficulties grows around the besieged retailers at an exponential rate, their only hope is the emergence of a British retail messiah in the caliber of late Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos of Amazon, at its very top out of the blue. A great visionary still has the time to turn the things around for a pleasant long-term outcome.

Otherwise, the tentacles of retail gloom may spread beyond the British shores to the rest of the world – much faster than we estimate it would.

- Asian Tribune -

The Slow Death of British High Street: the need of a retail visionary
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