Clicks and bricks must work to­gether

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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