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Worry About the Business Model, Not the Sales Figures

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The January hangover, apparently, is already here on our high streets. At a time when, traditionally, the sales are in full swing, retailers are already adjusting their mindsets to disappointment.

Latest figures from the British Retail Consortium show retail sales values up 0.3% year on year, below the rate of inflation but better than they might have been.

"Not a cause for celebration, but not a disaster either," said Helen Dickinson, the consortium's chief executive. "Rather underwhelming," she added, as if the stats needed further commentary. And David McCorquodale, head of retail at KPMG, chipped in by describing the December figures as "a flat end to a flat year". That's what we pay pundits for.

From the narrow perspective of turnover and profit, the figures tell us what we already know: that times are tough, and people are continuing to spend more of the little they do have online because it's easier.

But something else is going on that isn't picked up in the sales figures, and probably won't be for some time. More and more people I speak to are choosing how and where to spend. They may be spending less overall, but they are buying from people they know and choosing what's locally produced.

Our family, like many others, set ourselves a Christmas challenge of only buying each other gifts that were locally produced, hand made, reused or recycled. By and large we succeeded. The shopping was more effort than clicking on an Amazon link, but the gifts (and the conversations about them) were much more interesting.

In the course of our searches we discovered places like the Nichols Building in Sheffield, where artists and designers create individual products and give new life to old ones, and rediscovered delights like the Rare and Racy bookshop. Supporting local businesses not only does good, it feels good.

But there's a downside. If you want to shop in ways that are thoughtful and conversational, it takes a lot longer. It can involve inconvenient or unfruitful journeys. If what matters is to minimise interaction and get everything over and done with, you'll find it frustrating.

The despondent note of the British Retail Consortium's news release reflects a culture where the value is placed on the transaction rather than on the relationship. What matters to the big retailers is volume and growth; talk to many independent businesses and you'll find that alongside the financial realities are the values of relationships and service and being well thought of in the locality.

We can approach business relationships as producers or consumers. In a consumer-oriented world, the purpose of the relationship is our own benefit and advancement, and if we can succeed without it, life is so much simpler. But the more we consume relationships, in business or our personal lives, the harder it becomes to build them.

The more we act as producers of relationships - people who link others, who build bridges and networks, who are prepared to take the risk of trusting - the more likely we are to create places that flourish and thrive.

Each approach has its drawbacks. Acting as producers and creators and bridge-builders takes time and is often abused. Things go wrong and people may fall out or fail to get on. That's life. But as consumers we gain the product at the expense of the relationship, and our values become geared to stuff rather than people. And that's lifeless.