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Speaking up for indies’ interests

As part of Leeds Shopping Week, a panel including Mary Portas, Republic boss Tim Whitworth and Land Securities’ Gerald Jennings debated how fashion indies can overcome the many challenges they face.

Last week, Leeds played host to a debate on “The Future of the Fashion Industry” as part of Leeds Shopping Week. Drapers was there to witness the heated discussion about the future of the independent sector and the challenges retailers and brands will face next year.

On the panel, retail fashion guru Mary Portas was joined by Tim Whitworth, chief executive of young fashion retailer Republic, Gerald Jennings of property developer Land Securities, Simon Brown, managing director of lifestyle etailer Joe Browns, and Jane Rexworthy, head of the National Skills Academy for Retail. Here are the highlights:

What retail issue keeps you awake at night?

Gerald Jennings How we fill the voids in our shopping centres and how we plan for the next stage of the economic cycle. We are in for a challenge next year.

Mary Portas The future of the indie keeps me awake. Unless we give indies a voice and we change consumer habits, the supermarkets will take over and we will lose the heart and soul of independent shopping.

I’m calling on the big retail names to support indies.

How must bricks-and-mortar retail adapt to the online shopping culture?

MP We are human beings and shopping is a social activity. Unless we deliver service and give pleasure to the consumer in store then why would they leave their home to come out and shop?

I review shops every week and between 70% and 80% of them are mediocre and 15% are appalling at best. Some retailers are brilliant and we need to give people a reason to go out and shop in bricks-and-mortar stores. Online shopping is shopping on a needs basis.

Tim Whitworth I’m interested in what the customer wants and my decisions are driven by the customer regardless of the shopping channel. What you see happening out there on the high street will happen online. If customers want to shop online then it’s our job to do online better, faster and with innovation.

GJ We have to interact with people – there has been a retail industry in Leeds for 800 years and we will be retailing for another 800 years – it’s just the metrics that will change. We have to collectively adapt to the new environment.

What are the challenges where customer service is concerned?

MP It’s about creating places that feel like somewhere you want to be. It’s about the lighting and the seating, and making the place fun. The mass-market chains are unable to keep that going because it requires investment.

Jane Rexworthy It’s the people in your business that deliver excellent understanding of the customer. Good retailers recognise that and have fantastic training programmes.

What do indies bring to the shopping experience?

GJ As a developer we have a responsibility to build partnerships with indies. It has to be a sustainable model but we do say to those retailers, “come and join us on this journey”.

MP But do you give indies lower rents like you do the big boys?

GJ At some centres we use the turnover model and then we share in the good and bad. We have to let the big boys in as it will only be successful long term if it’s a collection of eclectic retailers.

MP What percentage of the mix in a shopping centre would be independents? I know we all want a Marks & Spencer and a John Lewis, but how do we look after the indies?

GJ You can’t set out saying a certain percentage of the mix will be indies in any given development, as that would be quite prescriptive. It’s about balance.

MP Instead of giving the big retailers peppercorn rents why can’t they contribute to the indies being there?

TW The rent is just one element for an indie in a shopping centre What about the rates and additional overheads that can cripple a retailer?

Has the downturn filtered out the bad retailers from the high street?

TW There have been a number of retailers that have adopted the “phoenix rising from the ashes” approach and have risen up under different arrangements. These businesses don’t really change. A weak competitor is better than no competitor.

GJ Different retailers have suffered for different reasons. Oasis and Karen Millen have struggled because of the Icelandic crisis but they are great brands. They are different businesses now and we have supported them through it and rightly so, because we wouldn’t want to see them go.

What is the number one thing a retailer could do tomorrow to improve their business?

GJ Get more involved. We have been to numerous towns and hosted retail meetings where we invite retailers down to debate, and we are consistently disappointed by the number of retailers out there that don’t engage.

TW Talk to your customers, they will have the answers if you don’t. Understand their needs today and work out what their needs are tomorrow before they know them.

MP The biggest thing that retailers need to do is to be proud of their industry. There is a job to be done and, as [M&S executive chairman] Sir Stuart Rose says, retail is the second-oldest profession. We need to have pride and put that pride into those who work in the industry. We are all in this together and we need to bring up the next generation of retailers.

Simon Brown No one has mentioned the power of the brand. When things are difficult people go back to what they trust. You have to have a point of difference and there isn’t enough identity on the high street.

How do you rate customer service on the high street?

TW It’s about understanding the customer and there is a generation gap forming. The quality of good store management candidates is diminishing. We invest in customer research and the demand for good customer service comes after product, price and quality.

MP Good customer service needs to be reintroduced and the person who does that on the high street will win. With the rise of the value chain what hope is there for the quality retailer?

Which is your favourite shop?

GJ Apple, because it is fantastic and sorts out your problem immediately. The customer service and product is superb.

TW There aren’t enough good retailers to choose from, which is a problem. I love shopping in Japan; the service, attention to detail and quality of product is outstanding. I admire my local fruit and veg man for his passion. He restores my faith that as a nation we can converse with one another.

MP I have many. Liberty is beautiful and understands sensory shopping. Gap still offers good customer service. Urban Outfitters is cool and I like John Lewis, because I trust everything it says.

JR There are a range of indies local to me that offer products I can’t get anywhere else.

SBAll Saints. It dares to be different and everyone tries to copy its look and fails. The service is also fantastic.

Drapers and sister title Retail Week are organising a conference on Saving the UK High Street in February 2010. The one-day event is back by the British Retail Consortium, the British Council of Shopping and the British Property Federation, and will focus on proven action plans to prevent long-term decline of the high street. To register your interest email

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