‘I’ve seen it all before’by Nigel Havens
Owner & managing director of Havens department store, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex
'I've seen it all before'11/07/2012 14:55:59
My 23 year old son Michael, who has a decent job in London as a marine ship broker, had promised my father a lunch in the City as a birthday present.
Michael suggested I join them, so three generations lunched at the Relais de Venise: a great restaurant if you like steak, as the menu consists of just four items: bleu, rare, medium or well done steak, with pepper sauce and proper French fries. Just as well we all like steak frites!
By way of justifying my absence from work on a Monday which, after a good weekend's internet sales, is always now our busiest day, I thought it would be a good time to take in the Westfield Stratford City shopping centre.
After our excellent lunch, we took a Central Line tube from Bank station: just a hop, skip and jump to the home of the London 2012 Olympics and the recently opened Westfield.
Huge tiled corridors lead you from Stratford station to the shopping centre, and the first impression you get is of people - thousands of them - all decanted from far and wide. I fear that high streets of East London must be deserted.
Eating in London is a more formal affair for my father, particularly the City, so he was smartly dressed along with MCC tie and matching brolly. So the two of us (Michael having dutifully returned to work) wandered around taking in the layout and enormity of it all.
The average visitor age was knocked up a notch by my father's presence, but did not seem to breach 30. As we shuffled into the unlit Hollister [a young US fashion Brand by Abercrombie & Fitch] we felt as out of place as the assistants would in the pavilion at St. John's Wood. It defies all retail rules but is compellingly different and excitingly aspirational. They clearly know their target market.
We then took a quick glide around the reassuring presence of John Lewis, which seemed out of place for the clientele (time will tell) and then into Timpsons [a family retail business with 625 shops across the UK and Ireland, specialising in shoe repairs, key cutting, engraving and watch repairs] where I made my only purchase - but only just. My father and I are avid readers of John Timpsons' regular articles in the Daily Telegraph and his blogs on the Timpson's website (http://www.timpson.co.uk/blog) which cover all things business but are more often than not retail-orientated. As a retail family business too, we can relate to his wise counsel with experience.
The shop looked inviting, well lit and well laid out - abandoning the old fashioned feel of a traditional cobblers. Sadly the old fashioned service had also been abandoned, as a sole (dreadful pun) sales assistant was less than helpful, bordering on off hand, as we interrupted his engraving preparations to buy shoe laces with ready cash. 'JT would be dismayed,' my father whispered to me on exit. And so would his son, I added!
We carried on around the Centre and up to the Olympic Park viewing gallery - well not quite, you do get a partial view of the main Olympic stadium, swimming centre and the Mittal tower, along with an interactive graphic map which attempts to fill in the detail.
To be honest, by now I'd become bored. I've seen it all before. The shops, restaurants and general ambiance is not really that different to any other shopping mall. There just seemed more people because of there's the newness factor to drive footfall.
Clearly my father and I are not the target market. But even so, how many of these 'me too' shopping environments do you need? They must be cannibalising each other. Bluewater, Lakeside, Brent Cross, Westfield London Shopping Centre in White City/Shepherds Bush ...they all target, with just slight variations, the same audience.
The real loser has to be the high street that Mary Portas so wishes to revive. It will never draw the footfall that these centres attract, with their easy public access and free parking (even with the car park at Stratford closed in preparation for the Olympics, the place was still rammed). Nor can they compete as a day out shopping destination; the centres cover both shopping and leisure.
Tinkering is not going to help and a radical change in the structure of High Street UK needs to prevail to breathe life again.
Property values, rents, rates and parking charges have to become more realistic (I suspect that, in time, low demand will address this). Then, hopefully, a greater diversity and flexibility of usage and independent retail tenant will have more confidence to return. In turn this will give real point of difference to the high street and attract those of us turned off by the predictability of the shopping malls.
As a retail company in a secondary retail location, Havens has witnessed the gradual erosion of footfall on the high street. Recognising this over 10 years ago, our business moved to multichannel with the Havens website now our guiding star.
But we are ready, if things improve around us, to take up the local retail baton again and hope there are sufficient customers out there who appreciate quality, service, variety, in a unique store, over the safe predictability of the shopping malls.
From the reviews of Havens on the independent Trust Pilot website, old fashioned service, family business and great quality product are all recurring themes. Perhaps there is hope!