SO why are the big retailers going bust?

In the last few weeks we’ve had Mothercare, Mamas & Papas, Jessop’s, Bon Marche and Jamie Oliver’s restaurants all disappearing from high streets and Clinton’s in talks about the threat to its estate and future.

But why are such retail giants, huge recognisable brands now struggling?

It’s not because the consumer has less money, it’s not (entirely) because of Brexit or the General Election, or even the weather. It’s because those retailers who are failing and struggling aren’t paying any attention to their customer, their products or the relationship they have with both.

You see, it’s so so easy to work in your business and not on your business. Focusing on the day to day sales and trade, numbers, profit, stock. And as a business that’s important but the customer, and the product are the things we need to look at closely and regularly. Here lies the problem with those retailers.

Let’s take Mothercare – once a solid brand in the nursery market, stocking a wide range of everything needed for babies and toddlers. But what they didn’t do was have the stores as an experience, a café, beauty salon or hairdressers for sleep deprived new mums, workshops on baby yoga & weaning, celebrity endorsed brands of clothing, a modern range of maternity clothes, an abundance of helpful staff, high end / designer brands of prams, and each and every product at exceptional value. Their stores got bigger and bigger, yet the range of products became poorer and poorer – in terms of quality and value. The customer realised this, and shopped elsewhere. Instead they are shopping with the independents, John Lewis, the supermarkets, online. They are enjoying spending money with independent retailers who spend time with customers, who know the product range and brands – yes there isn’t the choice, but their certainly is the service… and in a very fast paced world, when a customer is buying something they don’t know a great deal about eg baby equipment, they want to be educated.


Mamas and Papas is a similar story – once offering excellent products, premium quality at a premium price. They had a handful of stores scattered throughout the UK meaning the brand was more secretive and exclusive. They rolled out a store programme, slashed the quality but not the pricing, moved away from the cutesy style clothing which was designed in a slightly more traditional fashion to suit the customer, to ranges that didn’t marry up with the customer.

Bon Marche – an easy one… what and where was the brand pitched in the market? The older customer? But the older customer is now more affluent & demanding, wanting quality and style, not wincyette nightwear under £5. Yes there is a market for that, and Bon Marche  needed to make the bold move to either trade up or trade down and be very clear on its target customer.

Clinton’s – they have been in trouble on an off since 2012 when they were bought by American Greetings. A similar story to Mothercare, once offering wide ranges of cards, gifts, balloons. They had very little competition on the high street, 10 years later we find great quality cards sold at the supermarkets, in the discounters and specialist discount card stores such as Card Factory. Meanwhile the independents quietly got on with selling premium, niche ranges of cards, and the personalised card market boomed on etsy and funky pidgeon. And Clinton’s didn’t do anything to tap into either of those markets.

Does that mean that if the big retailers are in trouble, there’s no hope for small, independent retailers?

Absolutely not. This is where the independents have the edge. We are nimble, focused and very very close to our core customers. We talk to them, we base our decisions on who is coming into our shop to spend, we visualise our online customers and always keep them in mind when selecting ranges.

The high street is shrinking, it will have less and less big names – but our high street will and can become and eclectic mix of cafes, bars, office space, independent retailers & new kids on the block. With shops such as refill stations, eco shops, vegan restaurants, gin retailers. And that is certainly where I would like to shop.

We just need to put pressure on the government to allow affordable trading space on our high streets, reducing business rates and rents (currently only charity shops get reduced rates) and encouraging private landlords to have shop units filled and a lower rent coming in, than empty and abandoned.

What do you think? Are you involved in any local groups such as Totally Locally? I’d love to hear what you are doing as a retailer to drive more sales and stand out from the bigger, struggling retail giants.


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