Not the January Sale. Or even the queue for a new iPhone. There’s a lot to be learned from my local fishmonger.
The British used to be described as a nation of shop-keepers. I’m not sure if this is still how we are seen today.
But if it is true, then (as I’ve commented before) the high street provides us with a fantastic barometer for the UK economy. Which is why there is so much interest in the shop vacancy report published by LDC, (a small business that I am proud to have been a Non-exec for six years).
I believe that the economy that I grew-up with is disintegrating and that we are currently witnessing the birth of an entirely new and different economy: a digital economy. And one place where the affect of this transition can be visibly and vividly seen, is on our high streets.
Frankly British high streets need to be reinvented. The many miles of shops that line the high streets of small towns (like the one in which I live) need repurposing.
However, not all provincial retail is dead, there are some amazing and remarkable exceptions. I am often asked what is my favourite business - and one of them happens to be a retailer local to me: Sandy’s Fishmongers in Twickenham.
My photo captures the queue outside Sandy’s in their usual blast of trading on Christmas Eve (24.12.12.). As you can see, the queue passes the front of two and a half adjacent stores. Sometimes Sandy’s even lays on a jazz band to entertain their waiting customers.
Just why is a retailer of fish so successful? Why does this shop work so well when all around us we see shops closing?
There is a lot to be learned from Sandy’s success. Lessons that could help to shape the high street of the future, (even if it is a much smaller street). Lessons that are relevant to all businesses, not just retail.
I think, in order to be successful, retailers in provincial high streets need to fit one (or more) of the following criteria:
- Provide a personal service (ie. one that depends on human skill / intervention). For example, hair-dressers. Even if I could get my hair cut at a dot-com, I’d still prefer to go to my local barber.
- Be unique. That’s what is so special about Sandy’s. The range and quality of their stock is astonishing - it is fantastically beyond anything that you could ever possibly find in a supermarket. And the staff all have a remarkable knowledge of their trade and can advise how best to cook and prepare any dish.
- Accomodate a social exchange, eg. pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes.
- Provide immediate convenience - eg. convenience grocery stores.
For all else, the public have already voted with their feet. They either go to mega-high-streets (like Oxford Street); super-shopping-malls; or out of town retail parks. Or they go on-line.
However, when it comes to fish, nothing compares to the fantastic Sandy’s, providing a brilliant service, neatly located in the heart of the hungry demand of middle-class dinner party heaven.
The challenges of running a successful business are not unique to small independent retailers. Size is no longer an indicator of longevity. The last two years has seen plethora of household retail names go to the wall: Woolworths; Comet; Habitat, to name but three.
I recognise that this especially difficult not only for the retailers (and their staff) that have been negatively affected, but also for some parts of the community that still hanker nostalgically for the continuance of the high street they fondly remember, despite the fact that it is no-longer commercially viable. In my view, the challenge is not “how do we save our high streets?” it’s: how do we reinvent them?
So what is Sandy’s ‘secret-sauce’? (the term used in digital commerce to describe how and why on-line sites sometimes suddenly tip and see their success ‘go-viral’). Well at Christmas, it’s high quality turkeys (from a fishmonger?). While the queues may be festively seasonal, Sandy’s success is an all year constant. The shop is always buzzing and full of business.
People sometimes wrongly think that because of my work at Wayra that I am only interested in digital start-ups. For certain this is something that I am hugely passionate about, because I think it’s the future. The truth is, I’m interested in all businesses, including traditional (analogue) ones. I believe that all businesses must embrace the digital opportunity - even Sandy’s has a website.
I’ve always had a love of retail. I think I inherited it from my parents who owned and ran their own shop for 33 years. They had the shop before they had me. We didn’t live in the shop, but it is where I grew up.