The BBC has helpfully published this list of UK high street retail failures in the last 12 months: Republic, Blockbuster, HMV, Jessops, Comet, JJB, Clinton Cards, Aquascutum, Ellie Louise, Game, Peacocks, Pumpkin Patch, Past Times, Hawkins Bazaar. Actually the BBC list goes on back into 2011, but 12 months of depressing news seems enough for one paragraph. Is it possible to derive any general lessons from the list?
The first group is fairly obvious: Blockbuster, HMV, Clinton Cards, Game. In all these cases, the high street business model is simply obsolete, overwhelmed by the internet. Why rent a DVD from the tiny selection in a Blockbuster store when you can choose from practically every film ever made online? Why buy music or a video-game in store when you can download it cheaper - or more likely unofficially free - track by track? Who wants a bog-standard greetings card when you can design your own online?
A second group is more interesting. Retailers such as Hawkins Bazaar and Past Times are (or rather were) primarily plays on unorthodox assortment. In theory unorthodox assortment should be relatively immune to the depradations of internet retail. In practice, this is only so if your products are genuinely unique - and you are the only stockist. Otherwise, online is the natural place nowadays to start hunting for unusual items. Almost certainly you will find a much wider choice online, and non-unique products will probably be cheaper there too.
A third group - JJB, Peacocks, and a number of smaller players - simply drowned in debt following ill-conceived refinancing. Online isn't really responsible, although it's probably a contributing factor.
A fourth group - Republic, Ellie Louise, Aquascutum - goes to prove that a fashion retailer still needs to sell stuff that people actually want to wear. Although there's no evidence to support this, I can't help feeling that the continued growth of Asos, whose outstanding site makes it extremely easy to find something you really want to wear, is a contributing factor. It is steadily becoming a category killer, and you could argue that these are the early signs of it doing some killing. Asos can't be the only factor though, and what then of Comet or Jessops? How come Dixons Group is posting its first real profits for years while Comet is going bust? Or Jessops (a specialist photography retailer) - seemingly doing the right strategic things - good service, plausible prices, online channel doubling sales in the past year? Why is Waterstones (books) still trading at all?
One possible answer lurks in the announcement that John Lewis, still a case-study for successful multichannel retail, has appointed the former CEO of Collect+ as Multichannel Director. John Lewis appears to be making a statement here: they've appointed an expert making stuff happen for the customer after the sale.
Back to Asos for a moment. Yes, their website is very good, their assortment excellent, and their marketing outstanding. But their prices are nothing special, and if you start looking for testimonials online - trawl the blogosphere for example - what do you typically find? Tributes to their Returns process/policy. I know this isn't a very statistical data point, but try it for yourself. Once again, it's all about after the sale.
Dixons' (PCWorld) "KnowHow". Yes, their increasingly predatory sales-floor staff do appear to know their stuff, but KnowHow itself - it's an after sale proposition.
What about all those coffee shops? There's one just opened in my nearest PCWorld, there's a Costa in the local Waterstones, and don't forget how long this has been a successful formula: anyone know the date the first IKEA restaurant opened? Actually it was 1960. Do you actually go into an IKEA restaurant first, before going round the store? Thought not. You view your main purchase-under-consideration, collapse into the restaurant/coffee-shop, and then suitably fortified return to the store to make a purchase. Maybe not the main item, but still a purchase.
Developing my "Logistics is the New Marketing" theme a little further, perhaps it should be "After Sales is the New Marketing".
And if you are a small high street retailer, feeling the squeeze and wondering how anything in the Portas report is relevant to you, maybe stop reading it and start using the time more constructively calling your customers a few days after they bought something to check it's all OK. And if it isn't, pop round and fix it. That's a service that Amazon are never going to offer.
What does it mean for the bigger retailer? After Sales is complicated and difficult to train in a purely process way. The situations that arise are more unique to each customer. Which means, inevitably, that you need more sophisticated staff, operating under more flexible policies. Goodbye McJobs, hello iJobs (or should that be Steve Jobs).