The Blog

Task Force to Save the High Street?

This week, the latest 'task force' - The Future High Streets Forum - meets in Westminster to help shape the future of our High Streets. Oh goody.

In my day, a Task Force was what we sent to the other side of the world to defend the islands from an invading force. Today, it has been watered down from a military solution to be a Government's response to any perceived problem. The last administration has Tsars. The coalition has task forces.

This week, the latest 'task force' - The Future High Streets Forum - meets in Westminster to help shape the future of our High Streets. Oh goody. Its role is to combat competition from online shopping, identify retail trends and to come up with ideas to bring Brits back to their town centres. The forum will advise Ministers on how towns can be rejuvenated - and how empty shops can be filled. Mmmmm ...

Let's look at each of those 'tasks' individually:

• Combat Online Shopping: almost every traditional High Street retailer now trades online. Several years ago, I recall visiting a Boots store to be confronted with signs at their check out saying (in effect): why are you shopping here and lugging everything around with you - shop online and we'll deliver it to your home. On the same visit, the store manager bemoaned falling footfall. Why are we trying to combat what shoppers want? We should be supporting it - and making the High Street / Online experience a shared opportunity.

• Identify Retail Trends: one in eight shops across the UK is now boarded up. There's a trend that needs very little identification ... one that has been growing year-on-year for five years. And people using their mobiles to buy stuff. Almost 50% of all online traffic is now from hand-held devices. A well known and well documented fact ... yet how many town initiatives have mobile-friendly digital?

• Ideas to bring Brits back to town centres: I wrote recently about the various ideas that each of the Portas Pilot Projects came up with for their rejuvenation plans. As with so many of these initiatives, they are based on talking shops, committees, groups, councils, associations and forums - albeit well-meaning in their time. Ask the shopper. It doesn't need a panel of experts to work it out. It requires significantly improved communication with the end customer. They vote with their feet, wallets and (increasingly) their mobiles for social media comment, referral and recommendation.

The new Forum lists its roles as "helping to accelerate the programme of local mentoring established in response to the Portas review". As a Portas Pilot Mentor who has received not one call in 12 months, I very much look forward to that happening. It also says that it will "research a practical toolkit to help town teams future proof their high streets." Really? Futureproof. For how long? A year? Five years? A decade? I have yet to find a politician who understands what is happening today in the UK's retail sector ... let alone tomorrow.

The retail sector accounts for more than a third of our nation's turnover and contributes huge sums of money for the treasury via business rates - around 5% of the whole tax take. My guess is that Governments of all colours and sizes are happy to milk that for all that it is worth, as long as they are seen to be doing something. After everyone has pummelled Mary Portas and her Projects, the Forum ticks that box.

Some considered Mary's review and subsequent pilots simply a gimmickry - and argue that the 'task force' is the strategic counter to the fluff. I'd so like to think that it will be. I'd agree that you can't run policy by TV shows. But in the same breath, you can't fix towns without listening to and engaging with your customers.

Over recent months, I've met with many folk to discuss the real issues around digital and social media communication that any retail destination must embrace 365 days of the year if it is to compete. No one is talking long-term blueprints. No one is talking about the coming years. They are talking about now. Today. This week.

I have been fortunate to work with colleagues at DestinationCMS who deliver digital and social media engagement for shopping destinations up and down the UK. Their Mall-to-Mobile service - developed and tested over two years - creates a unique level of engagement for retail destinations, retailers and the customer. They have researched more than 300 retail destinations. Not one has responsive digital or seven days-a-week social media delivery. And almost every one has less than 10% of its retail offer represented online. Thankfully, via Mall-to-Mobile, all of those tasks are covered.

There are many enemies at the High Street's door. The Government's latest Task Force has set sail. It is loaded with leaders of business, councils, retail and property. My fear is that they left port without the one weapon that can win the war. I counted them all out ... but the shopper is nowhere to be seen.

Until the Future High Street Forum talks with and listens to shoppers, it will be a seen as nothing more than a talking shop.

Still, as long as it pays the rates, the Government will be happy.