Clicks and bricks must work together
Bedford may not sound like the most obvious choice of place to celebrate the fifth anniversary of setting up your consultancy business, especially when it is based in Reading, but for Pete Doyle and his ecommerce agency, SocialRetail. co.uk, it makes perfect sense. For the man who once headed up the establishment of online operations for retail giants such as Waitrose, Hamleys and Toys R Us is now committed to harnessing that same internet revolution to revive ailing high streets in small towns just like Bedford.
In a break from running a daylong training session in the town for 18 independent retailers on how to exploit “click” commerce to boost their traditional “brick” retailing, 43-year-old Doyle is immediately keen to challenge the received wisdom that the rise of online shopping inevitably sounds the death knell for our high streets, big, medium-sized or small. “When I was leading the e-commerce operation at Waitrose in the late Nineties, it was all about servicing customers who were sitting at their desks, on their computers, and then sending the goods to their homes. In the last 15 years, though, that has changed radically. Today it is all about buy-where-you-are, using mobile devices, making decisions on the move, and click and collect.” Doyle started out on the shop floor at Waitrose in 1986 as a 16year-old Saturday boy. Later he worked for the company at head office trying to get individual local stores linked up with local press and radio, before turning his attention to retail and the internet. Those changes in ecommerce that he describes as happening over the past 15 years have the potential to benefit independents every bit as much as the chains, he says, if not more. “In my three years at Toys R Us [1999-2002], we managed to grow our online business from £250,000 to £5million, but the way we did it back then was largely at the expense of our shops. It was a case of either/ or. What is so exciting now is that all retailers have the opportunity to integrate offline and online, make one support the other and vice versa.” This is fighting talk in a week in which the numbers of empty shops on the high street have stuck “stubbornly high” at more than 14 per cent, according to researchers at the Local Data Company. In Blackburn in Lancashire, that rises to a little short of 30 per cent.
The trade jargon for what Doyle proposes is creating “a multiplatform offer”, and it could be, he suggests, the saviour of the high street, which is the message he has been extolling to his audience in Bedford all morning. SocialRetail. co.uk also runs training workshops for the British Retail Consortium and as part of the Henley Business School’s MBA programme. And – practising what he preaches – Doyle also has a learning platform, HighStreet13.com, for those wanting to improve their skills online.
“I’m not the only one saying all of this,” he points out. “The head of Google has been telling people recently that the future of the web is local. It is all about how you apply it. Social media – Facebook, blogging and Twitter – can all be used to attract people into your local high street, especially if you’re offering a distinctive offline experience.”
Perhaps it’s my age, but the neighbourhood shopping area, without heavy footfall. The margins it was making on the books it sold were thin. The owner called us in because he was thinking of setting up an online ordering operation, a miniature version of Amazon. But working with him, we’ve come up with something much more effective. Chapter One now tweets regularly about events that are taking place in the shop, or about books that its staff like, or that other customers want to recommend. They have great knowledge in that shop, and what Twitter has enabled them to do is share that expertise, put it out on social media and attract new customers into the shop.”
The assumption many independent retailers make, in common apparently with the owner of Chapter One, initially, is that signing their business up for the digital revolution means the costly investment of setting up a transactional website, where customers can buy online as well as (or instead of) coming in to the shop. But while that may work for some, Doyle feels it is a model that doesn’t always best serve the real needs of their shops – and their high streets. His alternative approach is simpler, cheaper and, he argues, potentially more effective.
The key, he insists, is to keep it local, even for larger retailers. “I’ve done some work lately with Hillier Garden Centres, a chain of about a dozen shops that have been around for 150 years. They had already tried tweeting from their head office, but that had generated no real engagement with local communities near their garden centres. So we ran a pilot in three of the stores with Twitter, based on what was going on in each local store, and we saw the reach grow from 70,000 to two million. They had their first customer coming in to make a
Novel setting: author Salley Vickers still returns to Presteigne on the Welsh Marches, above, for its ‘relaxed, friendly, old hippy air’; Pete Doyle, left, teaches high street retailers how to join the digital revolution