My first real experience in the retail trade was as a ‘Saturday boy’ in Debenhams of Northampton in 1977. I worked on the menswear department selling jeans – there were two sometimes three of us looking after one free-standing rail, about twelve feet of wall space holding nothing but different brands and styles of jeans and a single dressing room. Today you can buy jeans for under a tenner – less than the price I was selling them for almost forty years ago. Today you can go into large retail stores in Truro and find less staff in the store than were manning that small jeans department.
What does this mean, what are the implications for retailers, how on earth can they make a profit these days? Aside from the obvious implications for the people who make the jeans and the costs and impacts of transporting them, the profit margin per item is tiny, meaning that they have to sell more units and squeeze every penny of their costs.
This doesn’t just apply to jeans of course but to all areas of retailing and, for me, the ‘demand’ for lower prices has been the single biggest change for retailers not just in Truro but everywhere – far greater than the ‘threat of online shopping’.
Truro has always been at the centre for retail in Cornwall – from its days as a stannary town, through to the days of independent department stores with the likes of Roberts and Malletts Home Hardware et al and to the current days which sees a strong mix of both independent and multiple chain stores.
We have low retail vacancy rates in Truro but also a high turnover of shops – this demonstrates both a high demand for retail space in the city but also a high level of failed businesses, which goes back to my jeans story – the streets of Truro are not paved with gold; the rents, rates and transport costs are high and there is plenty of competition. Truro is circled by any number of retail-led out-of-town development schemes which rattles the investment market – why open a new shop in the city centre with its costs, access and often restrictions on available space and complex buildings when you can open in an off-the-shelf unit on an ‘any-town’ retail development on one of the main approach roads? I’ll tell you why – because for me there is a magic formula for retail. It’s not easy but it means that you must get all aspects of product, service and environment right. Layer on top your communications strategy – this is where online comes in by offering superb ways of communicating with your customers – and you are set to achieve the differentiator, the essence that sets Truro apart from other towns or the soulless transactional worlds of Amazon or e-bay – it is the retail experience you can enjoy in Truro.
Last week saw the opening of a Waitrose supermarket on the outskirts of Truro. As far as supermarkets go, it’s a good one. But for every penny spent there, it’s a penny lost from elsewhere – nobody is eating more food as a result of their opening, and it’s in the wrong place too. Back to the Truro experience though – we have a thriving Co-op in the heart of Truro. We have great fresh produce available from the likes of The Cornish Food Box, Thornes, Archie Browns and the Pannier and Truro Farmers Market – all delivered with a smile, a bit of banter and a known face. One of the real risks posed by supermarkets though is in their non-food offer – just look at how heavily Waitrose are promoting their John Lewis ‘click and collect’ service as part of their opening marketing campaign. This is a real threat and one that many of Truro’s businesses are already wise to as they integrate their online with their more traditional off-line business (have a look at The Uneeka website for a great example).
New Primark Store
With Primark due to open in Truro this autumn, what will that do for the city’s retail offer? In the first instance, I can think of no other brand that will attract more new customers into Truro than Primark. But the impact that this store will have on existing retailers, on the transport and parking infrastructures of Truro remains to be seen. Also, the sales volumes needed to generate sufficient revenues (back to the jeans again) will see a fleet of delivery vehicles servicing the store.
So to the future of retailing in Truro – what will it hold? No one really knows for sure but certainly the successful traders will be those that deliver excellence in the areas of product, service and environment and who fully embrace the online opportunities to communicate (not just to sell) with their customers. We may see further famous names following in the footsteps of Woolworths, BHS and Austin Reed and leaving holes in the high street but hopefully the holes that they leave will be seen as more attractive than out-of-town sites. I can foresee the growth in niche nationals building on Truro’s legacy of hosting such names as Apple (Stormfront), The White Company, L’occitane and Steamer Cookware and, in parallel, the growth in niche independents building on such names as Inhabit, Illustrated Living, Magpie & Fox and Uneeka. Then, in the hybrid area, I can see more ‘nationals acting like locals’ – Waterstone’s being the perfect current example – a national brand that acts like your local favourite bookshop.
Provided that collectively, Truro keeps itself clean, safe and welcoming and offers quality, choice and great value with the odd surprise then it’s retail future looks far stronger than most.
NEILL SCOTT, Truro BID Manager