“It has been so good to see retailers enjoying ‘proper shopping’ – you just can’t tell your company’s ‘story’ or share its ‘colour shower’ on a website the way you can at a trade show,” summed up Dominic Early, co-owner of Earlybird Designs (pictured above) about the Autumn Fair.
“We were rushed off our feet, didn’t stop at all on the Sunday especially, taking order after order,” added Karen Wilson, co-owner of Paper Salad.
Kay Patel, co-owner of The Seed Card Company was equally enthusiastic. “We had broken even by lunchtime on the Sunday. It was wonderful to have such a positive reaction to our ranges, including our brand new Nature Always Wins collection. So good to feel that we are really getting back to normal!”
Echoing this positivity with his own breed of vim and vigour, retail entrepreneur Theo Paphitis delivered a punchy keynote address at the show which inspired and enlightened.
“We are at the beginning of a new dawn for retail. I can only see opportunities for physical retail to start growing and prospering again,” he told a packed audience.
“We are coming through the other side of retail in so many different ways. There is an argument that says that we would have come through to the other side anyway, even if it wasn’t for Covid – maybe it would have been another five years, in which those five years would have seen the transformation of the rebirth of retail, But what Covid has done is to accelerate everything by at least five years, achieving that rebirth in 18 months.”
As he explained: “You have to imagine that retailers have all been on a massive travelator, with the direction of the travelator going backwards, while retailers have been trying to look forwards. We’ve all been walking, and walking faster, but the travelator’s going faster and backwards. So retailers have been jogging, and in the end it’s been full pelt just to survive. And with the travelator going backwards, if you didn’t go fast enough you fell off, with some great names in retail who did just that, retailers who weren’t able to run fast enough in the opposite direction to the direction of the retail travelator. Examples as we know include Top Shop, Top Man and Debenhams, with retailers such as Comet and Woolworths falling off the travelator quite early on. The reason these household name retailers fell off the travelator was because they couldn’t travel fast enough. And now, even John Lewis is having to run at full pelt. However, the travelator has now slowed down, with Covid forcing that, but finally we’re through to the other side.”
However, Theo pointed that there are still landmines, advising: “As retailers, we have got to be careful and not get carried away. The world is now growing and evolving at a rapid rate, with Covid accelerating the differential between physical and online retail. Prior to Covid and the speed of the travelator, we had a ridiculous disadvantage in terms of ridiculous business rates and ridiculous rents, with all physical retailers finding it really tough. We were peddling very fast to stand still. On top of that, we had to endure our competitors online without the same cost base, while taking some of our business. So, our costs were going up but we were losing business. Well, I now believe that this is truly coming to an end or has already come to an end.”
On the subject of business rates, Theo has long been a champion of pushing the government to make rates more realistic. “Since Covid, we’ve seen a suspension of business rates, and a reduction in business rates for this year that has to continue,” he stated. “Business rates can never go back to where they were. It would be disastrous. I recently told the Chancellor exactly that, and he chuckled,” revealed Theo intriguingly. “Therefore given that we’ve lowered business rates and rental costs, I can only see opportunities for physical retail to start growing and prospering again.”
Another reason for Theo’s retail optimism, is that, as he pointed out, the cost of online marketing has gone up – driven by online players having to keep showing growth – and the cost of having a physical store going down. “I’m not saying that they are perfectly equal yet, but it’s more competitive,” he stated.
“Now is a wonderful time for those who want a physical presence, and now is the time to do a deal, although it doesn’t mean retailers shouldn’t have an online business which is a must. This is the time to grab the opportunities. It’s never been more positive as far as retail is concerned.”
Focusing on convenience and neighbourhood, local shopping, Theo again stressed the opportunities for those who want to open physical stores. “With lower rental costs and lower business rates, I can only see opportunities for physical retail to grow again. There are some considered purchases that high streets can’t supply, but overall, with more people working from home, they are happy to go into their local high street for a coffee and to visit the shops there for everyday purchases, not just one day a week, or one day a month, but visiting regularly.
“Convenience shopping is growing, and we have seen our stores in market towns and on high streets doing incredibly well. So much so that we had a board meeting yesterday where we are going to investigate 200 new sites. This is the time to do it, while there is availability. They won’t be there in two to three years’ time.”
Top: Dom Early of Earlybird Designs on his stand at Autumn Fair.