Retail is big news these days. From the tabloids to cyberspace, media coverage of financial performances, closures and consumer spending is everywhere. But what effects might this spotlight have on the sector itself? Paul Farley turned to one of retail’s foremost ambassadors, Clare Rayner, The Retail Champion, for answers …

Since launching her retail consultancy in 2010, the self-styled Retail Champion, Clare Rayner, has more than lived up to the epithet, delivering an exhaustive programme of campaigns, conferences, books and training opportunities designed to support smaller independent retailers.

In addition to delivering two annual conferences – the Future High Street Summit and The Retail Conference – Clare co-ordinates the Independent Retail Campaign, which, each Easter, July and Christmas, encourages shoppers to spend in smaller stores. 

On top of this, former Furniture News columnist Clare acts as a business consultant and media ambassador, and is often called upon to deliver commentary on breaking news relating to the sector. Read on to find out how The Retail Champion herself works with the press to further the needs of the independent retailer, and her thoughts on the impact the media’s scrutiny might have …

How did you come to be called The Retail Champion?

It was a turn of phrase used by a BBC Breakfast producer when describing the kind of person he wanted on the sofa for my first-ever TV appearance. He wanted someone “on the retailers’ side, a bit of a retail champion” – I said I liked that, and could I use it again …?

Later that year I used it to define my mentoring programme –which was turned into a book of the same title – due to the duality of the meaning. When mentoring clients I was both on their side, as a champion of their needs, but also turning them into winners, helping them to become champions of retailing. It was originally a bit tongue in cheek, but it stuck!

Why does the sector need a spokesperson?

The retail sector is riddled with so-called experts – often with big-company employers, their primary purpose is not to voice the genuine concerns of the industry but to better position themselves and the business that employs them.

Very few people are honestly independent, and, other than trade bodies, there is no-one banging the drum for retailers (of all sizes) – the issues they face, their relationship with consumers, how they are impacted by Government decisions, technology, etc, and the painful change the industry is going through as it moves from offline, to multi-channel, to omni-channel, to trading in an environment increasingly populated by digital natives.

“The headlines about store closures and chains migrating away from high streets are damaging – the good news, that independent retailers are increasing in number, helping to maintain vacancy rates, is barely mentioned”

What might a typical week involve?

Speaking at conferences, blogging, email marketing, taking umpteen enquiries, article writing, delivering webinars, supporting clients with mentoring and consultancy, undertaking media engagements – directly and for clients – working on the local town team (which I chair), planning and organising my two annual conferences, promoting the campaigns, and supporting the various businesses I co-own.

Most people are surprised that everything I deliver is done by me alone, with the website delivered by my husband’s business and some of the admin and emailing done by the office manager of one of our other businesses. Other than that, we use three outsourced providers – of sponsorship liaison, finance management and copywriting – all of which I have invested in.

Although I am sure there is more I should and could be doing, the fact is – and this will be a well-known issue within any micro-enterprise – there’s only so many hours in the day, and it’s only the real top priority stuff that we can realistically focus on, particularly when a great deal of the work completed is not linked to any revenue.

What kind of work do you do with the national media?

I’m regularly called in by ITV, Sky, Channel 5, etc to talk when major retailers announce trading statements – profit warnings are usually highly newsworthy (they do say bad news sells). Also, stats around high street vacancy rates, or anything to do with the impact of Government policy on the sector, usually results in a media call.

I tend to get a call at about 2-3pm from the news desk who are scheduling content for first thing next morning. As I live in rural Lincolnshire, and as they don’t finalise the programmes until about 6pm the day before, I often find myself doing a dash home, grabbing some stuff for an overnight bag, driving to the station and jumping on a train. The TV companies cover the costs and put me up overnight, and at 5am the following morning a car arrives to deliver me to the studio.

Often, if it’s a big news feature, like the recent issue over Tesco’s profits and the reasons behind the drop being the accounting scandal, my agent will be calling around the channels to see if, given that I am in London, anyone else wants to do either a live or a pre-recorded feature.

What other retail issues have you offered commentary on?

Town centres – vacancy rates, footfall, issues of online and out of town, the changing nature of consumer relationship with their local shops … the financial performance of major chains – eg Tesco, M&S, Primark, Burberry, Next, Sainsbury’s – the rise of discounters, commentary on ONS figures … Christmas shopping, from the consumer angle – deals, discounts, consumer rights, and commentary on Which? reports …

“It is imperative that retailers try to draw customers away from the discount and back to appreciating the value, quality and service they can offer – and if that means foregoing the discount-hungry shopper for a more discerning shopper, then so be it”

What has been your greatest achievement as The Retail Champion?

Gosh, I can’t think of one – there are several things I look back on and think “wow – I can’t believe I managed to do that!” However, one of the best cases I can think of was when I was working one-to-one with a boutique retailer who really couldn’t afford to employ my services – but at the same time said she couldn’t afford not to.

She was buying £350k of stock per season, but not turning a profit. Her issues stemmed from ranging – she over-bought on highly seasonal lines, which ended up with hefty markdown costs, and under-bought on core basics which gave great margin returns and were easily carried forward from season to season.

Working together, we implemented better analysis and controls in the range-planning process, and the outcome was that, after several years in business, she was able to pay herself a very respectable salary! This accomplishment, which gave someone back their confidence and enabled them to stay trading in a business they loved, was far more meaningful than any TV appearance.

What are the likely effects of increased media coverage of the retail sector?                                    

There has been a greatly increased level of discussion of retail and town centres in the media ever since the Government appointed Mary Portas to complete her review, which was published at the end of 2011.

Before that, the importance of retail as a whole to the national economy was not widely appreciated, and now, with greater media focus, it has got people thinking and talking about their local high streets and what’s changed. Hopefully it is beneficial in some respects, helping encourage consumers to make more considered decisions – the death of their local high street, if they never spend there, is partly their responsibility.

I think it can also be harmful though. Bad news sells, so we often see headlines that are selective about the stats they use. These can harm consumer confidence and accelerate decline if they are published out of context.

In particular, the headlines about store closures and chains migrating away from high streets are damaging – not least when the good news of that whole story (that independent retailers are increasing in number, helping to maintain vacancy rates in the face of the exiting chain stores) is barely mentioned, and the press focus is heavily on the losses of the big players. The outcome is unbalanced and misleading reporting.

What was the most uncomfortable experience you’ve had as The Retail Champion?

I’ve been misquoted in the press in the past, which is never nice, but actually the worst thing that ever happened was a particular BBC Breakfast feature, just before Christmas 2013.

The presenter asked a question in such a way as to make my answer sound like I was urging everyone who had bought Christmas gifts at full price (from retailers who had gone into last-minute discounting) to take their receipt and have their purchases refunded at full price, and then to re-buy them at the reduced price.

To be fair, that was how it sounded – I pointed out consumers would be angry that purchases they made in good faith were now available to last-minute shoppers at a lower price, and that, frankly, if the refund policy allows it and retailers are willing to go into early discounting, consumers will abuse that opportunity to save money.

“The next 18 months will be very interesting to watch. The whole sector could be impacted by a large number of major chains reaching their lease expiries on property they snapped up 20-25 years ago, before the digital age”

However, the way this item came over was not good, because of how it had been introduced. At that point, Twitter erupted in comments. Some thought I was saying that all shops were legally obliged to offer refunds. I’d said within 90 seconds that any refund not covered by the Sale of Goods Act or distance selling regulations would have to be considered under each retailer’s own goodwill policy – but as that was at the end of the feature, several people had already misinterpreted me!

There are also the inevitable abusive tweets – I’ve been called names, and had some rather inappropriate comments made too! You need to grow a thick skin to cope with the backlash some of the keyboard warriors are willing to unleash.

What’s currently the most important issue affecting furniture and furnishings retail?

I think the major issue has to be discount culture. We are bombarded with advertising messages that tell us items should be 50%-plus off, and that no deposits and free credit are all part of the deal.

We have moved to an environment wherein the full price is rarely the price an item is sold for, and the manipulation of pricing to entice customers towards what appears to be a discount (when perhaps the price was overinflated in the beginning) is so prevalent, particularly for furniture, that those who are selling at a fair price may appear poor value if they aren’t promoting heavy discounting and one-time-only deals.

It is imperative that retailers try to draw customers away from the discount and back to appreciating the value, quality and service they can offer – and if that means foregoing the discount-hungry shopper for a more discerning shopper, then so be it. Discounting is a race to the bottom, and only engages with those who have no appreciation of the value of the product.

What are the most significant developments retailers need to watch out for this year?

The next 18 months will be very interesting to watch. The whole sector could be impacted by a large number of major chains reaching their lease expiries on property they snapped up 20-25 years ago, before the digital age. With the current low rate of renewal, and having seen reports on this topic by Springboard research, I have very major concerns that the current retail vacancy rates will dramatically increase.

Whether those vacant properties can be re-let to new brands who have a more relevant model for the modern consumer will make a huge impact on the whole look of vast areas of the UK – when towns, high streets, shopping malls and retail parks hit a certain level of vacancy, people are reluctant to visit, and businesses are reluctant to remain or take on new premises in those areas.

This lease expiry issue is something of a time bomb, and I believe it will be the most significant driver of change in the retail landscape over the next one to two years.

What advice can you offer retailers that they might not have heard before?

I’m not sure there’s anything I can say that’s unique – retailing is common sense, so it’s often better to be reminded to do something that you’ve lapsed on than told about some great new innovation. Therefore, my advice is that no matter what you are doing in your business – from deciding the range, to the pricing and promotional plans, to the PR and engagement, to the sales channels you use – do everything with the ideal customer in mind.

I hope retailers have heard it before, but it should be the most important thing they do. Don’t make decisions purely on a financial basis, nor on what you personally like, but make sure that everything you do considers the current – and ideally the potential future – needs and wants of your customers.

This article was published in the January issue of Furniture News magazine. The next Independent Retailer Month will take place in July 2015.