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Retailer Insight: Build your high street tribe

Ahead of Small Business Saturday on 7 December, Hilary Cookson, Lifetime Achievement winner at the Drapers Independents Awards 2019, says collaborating with neighbouring retailers is vital

It is no secret that the high street is changing, and has been for some time. It is a completely different place from when I first started out more than 40 years ago. Aged 11, I began helping my mother, the eponymous founder of Maureen Cookson in Whalley, Lancashire, who was at the helm at the time.

Independents face a range of issues, not least increasing competition from bigger-name brands, the rise of online and changing consumer shopping habits. Together, these have pushed indies aside in favour of places with covered walkways offering a full-day experience and free car parking.

Times are changing, and retailers must learn to adapt – we still have shops full of stock, staff to pay and overheads to meet, after all.

I took over running Maureen Cookson in 1995, and, while I was once keen to play my cards close to my chest, I came to realise that collaboration can be a key driver of success. Other shops are not the enemy: they are colleagues.

I was blessed with a strong data-capture system and knew my customers very well. It made personalised marketing easy: for example, I had targeted mailing lists according to customers’ size, postcode and the brands they liked. But new technologies and the arrival of global players, such as Amazon, increased competition, and it was no longer enough.

As a result, we went into ecommerce, and built a website for our larger-size department, Excel, which catered for sizes 20 to 30 and had its own brands and database. But sometimes this struggled if we failed to fulfil orders because suppliers hadn’t held stock as indicated. We then tried bulk buying, but products were invariably the wrong size or colour, and that hurt when heavy discounting to clear stock eroded our margins.

Fed up, I turned to my fellow indies on the high street and we started to collaborate. I warned them when I was going to discount and gave them the chance to follow suit. We also co-organised shopping days and weekends that would involve issuing raffle tickets for every purchase over a certain amount. Each shop offered a prize in the form of a voucher or item, which meant that one of my customers might have received a voucher for a “competitor” store and, conversely, I might have had a visit from a new customer, who I could then convert on to my database.

We all targeted our respective mailing lists and took to social media, which is brilliant for promoting events such as these and for spreading word of mouth. We set up a village Facebook page and used it to update news, and allowed shops to advertise for a small fee.

We also engaged with our local paper and radio station, who promoted the events and the great things that we indies were doing.

We tried getting our local chamber of commerce on board, but, unfortunately, its brush was too broad. It already advertised all of the village’s infrastructure, and we wanted the focus to be on our shops’ offerings. Instead, we set up a mailing group of local shopkeepers, which we used to relay information and keep everyone in the loop.

It is important that, as retailers, you take your head out of your ledgers and get to know your neighbours. Walk down the street and talk to other shopkeepers – you never know what you might learn. You might even end up feeling good about retail in these very challenging times.

As for me, I always said that I would rather be on a street full of competing clothing shops than among a row of empty units – a bustling high street brings shoppers through the door. Nobody wants to shop on a sad street. 


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