I won't pretend to be an expert in the retail industry or on government affairs. But I do care about what happens to the independent shops in Chelsea. I grew up in the area and still live here. And I've seen the retail landscape develop to the point that I've started to feel uncomfortable. I remember when The Shop at Bluebird was an indoor clothes market called The Garage. I even knew someone who had travelled all the way from Portsmouth to buy a pair of jeans there - just like other shoppers would travel miles to get to Kensington Market, which has now become a PC World. And now I sometimes wonder why anyone would travel out of their way to visit the King's Road, except perhaps to chase the Made in Chelsea dream and visit Candy Kittens.
A couple of weeks ago Paul Turner-Mitchell linked my post 'What's Happening To The King's Road?' to his blog on The Guardian. His headline was 'An Urgent Cry For Help From Indie Fashion Stores' and it drew our attention to the desperate state of UK's independent fashion shops.
Whilst it is hardly news that general trading conditions are under much strain, Turner-Mitchell also looked at the injustice of business rates within the retail industry as well as the nail in the coffin for independent shops: the withdrawal of credit insurance which brands have relied on.
Last week's news that the revaluation of business rates is now to be postponed means that there is no imminent solution for the indies' urgent problem. Businesses will be paying rates based on 2008 property rent, when the market was almost at its peak, until 2017.
Fifi suggested rent reviews "so that in hard times rent can be reduced as well as remain static or be increased." She also pointed out that "VAT needs to be reduced immediately." She explains, "we [independent retailers] did not increase our prices as it would have been counterproductive and prevented sales. And so we have swallowed yet another extra cost in this extremely difficult climate."
Fifi continued, "when the congestion charge for Chelsea was abolished last year the parking increased by a pound an hour. Many retailers feel that the parking costs are off-putting for customers. This is probably where large shopping malls score. And there is so much the government could do to help. For example, as in France and other parts of Europe, Sales should only be allowed a couple of times a year for specified periods of time to prevent this discount culture. My partner Jay and I had an idea of chain shops giving something back by sponsoring an Indie. You could have Starbucks investing some of the corporation tax they have saved into some local coffee shops, Topshop in boutiques, Waitrose in small grocery shops etc. After all, it is us that offer choice, quality and have a passion for what we are doing that transcends financial gain. We are a great testing ground for larger establishments, keeping things fresh and innovative with new products and designs."
Personally I like the idea of sponsorship but there is also the issue of how much corporation tax international companies, such as Starbucks, are actually paying to the UK economy. For some cynical reason, I question the possibility for altruism in the commercial sector.
My final point is the idea that landlords would rather keep their units empty, of which there are quite a few along the King's Road, than lower the rent. Their supposed argument is that they don't want to lower the value of their property. But aren't they just forcing themselves into a corner? Surely they would want to contribute to the King's Road being a shopper's paradise rather than make a Faustian pact with the chains? What about helping to recreate an identity for Chelsea so that there are more shops like Fifi Wilson, Harvest, Austique, Ad Hoc, Claudia Sebire and the rebranded Ross X Bute, formerly known as Anonymous to name but a few? At least then, there would be a reason for shoppers to head to SW3 instead of the West End. Business would be booming and everyone would be winning.
Or is this merely a utopian idea based on the nostalgia that King's Road was once the capital of cool? Just as some businesses have to accept that the digital age is threatening their existence, do we as shoppers have to accept a homogenous retail landscape? Or is there actually something we can do to make the high street a friendlier place for independents?