The world of High Street retail plays a crucial social role in bringing people together and combating loneliness, the boss of one of the UK’s top retailers has claimed.
Karen Hubbard, chief executive of The Card Factory, said that physical retail had the capacity to facilitate human connection in a way that online retail could not.
However Ms Hubbard said that UK high streets were increasingly having barriers placed between them and consumers in the shape of car parking and traffic and that more needed to be done to make the high street more convenient for consumers.
She added that both retailers and consumers needed to be more mindful of what they can offer each other if high streets were to enjoy a vibrant future.
The Card Factory, which has eight stores on the Fylde coast, is supporting The Gazette’s Love Your High Street campaign – being run in connection with out sister titles across Johnston Press – with the aim of focusing more attention on what can be done now to support our small shops and businesses.
“It is not enough for businesses just to be good at their business,” she said.
“When times are tough and consumers have plenty of opportunity about where and when they are going to shop, the job of a retailer is about staying in touching with their consumers and the communities in which they operate and do the best they can by their customers.
“We need to make it fun for customers to shop. We need to make it different to online and I think that is what a lot of retailers are grappling with at the moment, how do we make it more fun, more easy and more engaging.”
Ms Hubbard has worked in retail for much of her career. She joined Card Factory in 2016 from her old role as chief operating officer at B&M, having previously served in senior roles at Asda and BP.
She recounted an interaction she had with a customer in a Card Factory branch in Scotland last Christmas.
During a store visit she helped an elderly lady find a card she was looking to buy for one of her children.
“We talked about what her son was interested in and we found a card for her.
“The woman then came back to me and said ‘I just wanted to tell you that if you had not stopped and spoken to me just then I would not have spoken to anyone for the last week’.
“I wonder with that lady if there is a decreasing number of people who buy cards for her and who she buys cards for. So I do think that we as retailers that we do have an opportunity to offer a huge human touch point.”
The importance of physical interactions in retail is something the world of online retail cannot match but Ms Hubbard conceded that the convenience factor offered by the sector was something the High Street had to do more to match.
“I think it is a big challenge” she said. “Card Factory serves 2.4m customers per week. The majority of our stores are on high streets.
“Our customers plan their visit. Over 50 per cent of visits to Card Factory store are planned in advance.
“So we are fortunate in a sense that we are a footfall driver into the high street.
“But together we are not making the high street particularly appealing and easy.
“What I mean by that is in a lot of places we charge for parking. Parking, traffic – I do not think we are worried enough about how much we inconvenience people coming into town centres.
“If local councils really want to revitalise high streets they have to think about what is getting in the way. I think it is too easy to blame the internet.
“Of course it is more convenient to shop online these days. But there is something else which is also getting in the way because people want a social experience.
“If we make it hard, with charges etc, then it gets in the way and people will think ‘I will just do it on my laptop at home’.
“I do think there is a cause and effect to some extent.”
For Ms Hubbard, the future of retail is far from a one-way street and she believes consumers need to be more forthright on what they are looking for.
“They need to be vocal on what is stopping them doing it,” she said. “What do they want to still shop physically? That is the debate for all retailers, why have we still got a place on the high street?
“Retailers need to answer that question, with the consumers.
“Book shops are doing well by reinventing themselves and doing what the internet can’t with book clubs and recommendations.
“That’s what the High Street has to do.”
Support your local shops
As part of our ‘Love your high street’ campaign we want to see residents getting behind their local traders, who are so vital to our towns. Together with our sister titles we will:
l Highlight the vibrant variety of shops and small businesses in our communities and encourage readers to spend more time and money in their high streets;
l Drive home the message to the Treasury and our local MPs that outdated business rates need urgent reform to lessen the burden on independent traders;
l Call for positive action on parking charges and spaces to encourage people to visit our high streets;
l Pressure the Government to review what access high street businesses and shoppers have to cash and digital payments in the face of dwindling bank branches and ATMs.