The high street dilemma….

The last couple of years have seen a seismic change in the high street. Many of our well known brands have been forced to use (or misuse depending on perspective) the CVA process or disappear entirely. Whilst it is the well known brands such as House of Fraser, Top Shop etc that have made the news, many smaller shops that do not have the resource or clout to renegotiate leases or creditor arrangements have simply disappeared.

The inevitable question is whether the the high street is doomed no matter what changes are made or is it able to adapt and grow?

Before we discuss changes to be made it is perhaps best to consider what has gone wrong. This is not just about the “big names” – the high street has struggled across the board and the reasons for the demise varies, in particular:

  • The online giants: the way we shop has changed. It is not just about range or price, it is about convenience and speed. You can now with ease logon to Amazon and order pretty much anything for next day delivery. This in itself makes the high street less attractive. We don’t necessarily want to have the hassle or cost of parking to go high street shopping when a few clicks from the comfy position of your own sofa achieve the same aim;
  • Poor online presence: many of the high street shops have developed their own online presence but instead of complimenting and working alongside their high street presence the online user experience is woefully inadequate. Finding items and “signing up” are difficult and cumbersome, delivery times are sometimes excruciatingly slow and navigating the payment process can be frustrating;
  • Online v offline costs: having a high street presence is expensive and the increase in business rates etc has done little to alleviate this pressure. Equally, online business has the advantage of a lower operational cost base which enables it to invest and promote its presence;
  • Head in the sand mentality: like a lot of businesses, one of the biggest failures is often not recognizing or embracing change. It is easy in the good times to assume that the world will always be the same but the last 15-20 years have seen a quite revolution in the way we use technology. Many businesses have refused to embrace this change and have instead continued to invest and operate in the same way as they have always done. M&S anyone?…..

So is the high street dead? In short the answer is no but it needs to adapt. It is not just about technology but changing the way that the high street operates in general. In particular:

  • Collaboration: high street businesses (large and small) need to work closer together to attract footfall. Combined initiatives including delivery services, click and collect, leave and collect later, joint entertainment services etc can all be done as a collective;
  • Interaction between online and offline: at the moment the interaction between the online and offline environment is almost non-existent. High street businesses have the advantage of allowing customers to try, look and touch items – something that an online business will never be able to compete with. High streets need to adapt to allow shoppers to benefit from this experience. Allowing shoppers (for example) to simply try on items and then have them delivered the same or next day would enable stores to stock greater selections and more varied sizes;
  • Technology: whilst the online environment is inevitably embracing technology, the high street should also be looking at ways in which it can use technology to encourage people to visit their stores. Cross business promotions, dedicated high street voucher schemes, integrated apps to enable users to buy and either collect later or have delivered etc. are just of the basic ways in which technology can assist the physical shopping experience. Allowing greater collaboration between different businesses and online/offline experience (obviously GDPR compliance is a necessity here!) would allow technology to assist users to identify bargains, have linked items to things already purchased flagged as they visit particular stores etc.;
  • Its a party: visiting the high street should be an experience. It needs to offer something beyond just viewing and buying physical items. Major sporting and entertainment events need to be available for viewing, street entertainment needs expanding beyond the tiresome “bronze statues” we constantly see now, links with local college theatrical department can assist promote an enjoyable environment;
  • Learning from success: There are many examples in the high street that have been successful. In particular major brands such as Waterstones have taken the major threat of digital books and transformed their operations so that visiting a bookstore is an experience in itself and gives a reason to be there. In addition, we are seeing the growth of the independents – not just coffee shops but small shops that are selling unique items;
  • Government: whilst the solution to the high street woes is not just about the imbalance between online and offline businesses, the Government (central and local) needs to do more to encourage high street shopping. Reducing business rates, caps on car parking charges, greater traffic infrastructures, standardizing online/offline taxes etc are basic ways in which the playing field can be leveled.

The high street woes are largely down to businesses not recognizing the changing world we now live in. All businesses whether high street or not have to adapt and the high street is no different. However, the high street has a future – it has advantages that online will never be able to compete with – it is time to adapt and take control.

Wework – another bubble waiting to burst?….

Remember the dot.com boom? Followed by the dot.com bust? – well apparently not. As the wheels appear to be coming off the wework floatation, isn’t it about time we took stock (excuse the pun) and looked at the absurd valuations that we are seeing of various businesses? Whether it is tech darlings such as Slack or the gig economy giants of Lyft and Uber – our propensity to overvalue something that shows limited signs of being able to actually make money continues.

Wework is the latest business to prepare to float but if rumours are true – Softbanks investment in the office rental business is turning sour before it even gets to floatation with its valuation of the business being reduced from over $40bn to $20bn.

Like all investments there is risk as much as there is reward. Investments in Slack, Uber et al are understandably based on future potential especially considering that nearly all of these businesses are currently losing money and burning cash but the valuations that are emerging make the stock market appear more like a reverse game of pass the parcel whereby instead of getting a prize when the music stops – you get left with a load of shares that are worth a fraction of what you paid for them.

Wework has expanded significantly and has an impressive property portfolio but it faces a number of challenges. Firstly, it is inevitably exposed to an economic downturn. Long term property deals are fine if you can conversely tie in tenants on long term arrangements but the wework model is built on having an ongoing stream of short term tenants – as such, as the economy faces a downturn so will the demand for space. Secondly, the ongoing need for office space is changing as a number of businesses structure themselves to collaborate via online tools and reduce their need for physical space. The shift to flexible and agile working environments will exacerbate this further.

Equally, the gig economy businesses of Uber and Lyft are facing external threats not only from regulators but also from some of its own workers demanding rights such as holiday and sick pay – all of which will see price increases to the consumer as their cost base increases.

It is not all bad – all of the above businesses are built on solid platforms and have the advantage of significant investment behind them. Uber in particular has one powerful asset that it has yet to fully exploit – data. As we continue to move into a world where everything is about the “here and now”, the Uber infrastructure will allow it to continue to adapt by expanding its physical services beyond the provision of “taxi services ” to delivery. In addition, be able to fully exploit its growing collection of data to help service its customers every needs.

However, the problem with all of these businesses is they are currently built on unsustainable valuations. The market will at some point do what it did in the 1990’s – the bubble will burst and a lot of people will find themselves holding devalued (or even worse, worthless) stock. We will ever learn? Probably not…….