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From the High Street to high tweets

By Retail Technology | Friday June 7 2013

Retail veteran and one of Mary Portas' pilot mentors, Simon Baldwin argues that shopping centres are failing to cater for, adapt to and capitalise on m-commerce growth

As director at DestinationCMS, the company responsible for developing the new marketing app and content management system, Mall-to-Mobile, Simon Baldwin’s career in and around the UK’s retail industry has run parallel with what many have seen as the demise of the traditional High Street.

“Even in the early 1990s, commentators, politicians and the media were bemoaning developments that they saw as a threat to the ‘norm,’” he told Retail Technology.

Out-of-town return on investment

“I started working in the UK’s shopping centre industry in 1991, where the term “white elephant” was the term frequently used to describe these developments that were bolstering town and city centres up and down the land.” He added that, while out-of-town was in its infancy, hundreds of millions of pounds of private investment was being made across the country, building town and city centre shopping destinations.

Two decades and a cataclysmic global financial crisis later, Baldwin stated that many of those shiny new malls of the 1990s are now in desperate need of improvement and have been hammered by “badly planned out-of-town retail”. “They have become the shopping equivalent of the A road, overtaken by the faster, easier choice of the e-commerce motorway,” he said.

“Well, the commentators, politicians and media are still moaning. But where has 20 years of moaning got us?” he asked.

Integrating mobile into malls

“As a journalist and marketer, I’ve spent the last four years (with colleagues at DestinationCMS) trying to understand the problems, taking stock of the many challenges, researching the seismic shift in the media landscape and creating something that would have been nothing but a pipe dream in the 1990s – that is, integrated, 365 days-of-the-year communication. Our product, Mall-to-Mobile, is designed to provide ongoing social media support, as well as creating integrated websites for shopping destinations that work between traditional PCs and mobile devices, which is a common problem for retail outlets and other businesses.”

But sadly, according to Baldwin, others are stuck. “The Mary Portas Review, the subsequent Portas Pilots (for which I am an unused Mentor), the High Street Forum, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)…and now the Portas Pilot Champions … are all too focused on the cosmetic. They are ignoring the shopper, ignoring digital, ignoring social media and, to a very large extent, ignoring the retailer.”

Communicating consumer offer

The retail veteran also said the vast majority of retail destinations – be they shopping, town or city centres – have little understanding of how to best communicate their ‘offer’ to the end user. He cited a few examples: “Shopping centres that communicate with shoppers just five days a week. Town centres who are trying to placate everyone but retailers. BIDs that are run by people with almost no understanding of digital and social media communication. The list of mistakes and woes is large and varied … a kind of nightmare pick ‘n’ mix.”

But “hats off to Mary Portas for her passion,” Baldwin added. “She is a committed retailer – and knows her stuff. But retail is not just about window displays. Once you have updated your store, dressed your staff, improved your stock, made the street a nicer place and even let a few empty stores … then what?”

Passing the baton of communication

In the latest C4 ‘Queen of the High Street’ trilogy, Portas has used the phrase “passing the baton” to those in each destination when she leaves. “They may have the baton, but where’s the audience to watch them run?” he questioned, pointing out that, by this time next year, some are predicting that three out of four of us will be using our mobile phones to access the internet – “searching, sharing, reviewing, recommending, buying,” he added. “The opportunity exists now for all destinations to make best use of mobile technology – to drive footfall, dwell time, advocacy and sales.”

Baldwin warned that, unless traditional retail destinations start to use digital and social media to communicate the right message via the right channels at the right time, 365 days of the year, High Streets will continue to struggle, town and city centres will continue to lose retailers, shoppers will continue to shop ever-increasingly online and politicians will continue to posture.

“And as for Mary?” he asked in conclusion, “I hope she and others wake up and smell the coffee, before the cafés close”.

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