With nearly 15% of shops vacant, two new online shopping companies are trying to revamp the way we think about buying 'local.'
Most people want a thriving high street with butchers, bakers, greengrocers, bookshops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. So figures from the Local Data Company, showing that nearly 15% of shops are vacant, make for depressing reading. They seem to reinforce the gloom of Deloitte’s prediction earlier this year that four in 10 shops will be forced to close in the next five years.
No one wants to see their high street crumble. But with household budgets at breaking point, what’s the incentive to go local? Supermarkets and online retail giants offer discount prices, 24/7 shopping and deliveries. According to a recent report, some products, such as toys, are as much as 60% cheaper online.
However, two schemes aim to breathe life back into our beleaguered high streets. Openhighstreet.com and Myhigh.St both allow customers to shop locally on their mobile, PC or tablet. Customers can either click and collect, or have purchases delivered to their door.
“A big criticism of local shops is that they’re always closed when people want to shop,” says Loaye Agabani, co-founder of Myhigh.St. “For too long, independent retailers have lagged behind online retailers. Our aim is for every independent to be as easy to access as Amazon.”
Myhigh.St is centred on Wells, Somerset, but Agabani wants all 150,000 of Britain’s independents to come on board (it’s free to sign up but the retailer is charged commission on every sale it makes). It has 100 independent stores on its books, 62 in Wells and the rest spread around the country – there are a few in Castle Cary, Glastonbury, and others in London, Northumberland and the Isle of Wight. Once 10 or more stores in an area sign up, a virtual high street is created. Agabani hopes to have 17 towns online by December.
The shops sell everything from homeware to fashion, gifts and food. You search for items, or trawl specific shops and there are no postcode restrictions: some retailers will post items worldwide. Each retailer has its own checkout and charges separately for delivery.
Openhighstreet, on the other hand, keeps things local: shops only deliver within certain postcodes. It works more like a supermarket, but allows customers to search for specific products and compare prices locally.
The glossy site features photos and detailed descriptions of products. A major plus is that even if you buy from different shops, there’s only one checkout and a single delivery charge (£5). Deliveries continue until 9pm or you can click and collect.
“We’ve always struggled with the concept of selling cheese online,” says Mark Hindle, owner of Mousetrap Cheese in Hereford, which sells on Openhighstreet. “It is fairly cheap to buy but it’s heavy and needs to be kept cool, so it costs a lot more to send or deliver, than CDs, for example, which sell well online as they’re high value but cheap to post. So, the idea of selling locally, when we can share the delivery costs with other local shops, really appealed. Customers are only charged £5, no matter how many shops they buy from, and as it’s a local delivery scheme we can easily keep the cheese fresh.”
Openhighstreet has been developed by a consortium, including Unilever, Inzenka (a consultancy that sets up new businesses) and specialist providers such as Eziserv (a packaging company) and Pi3 (branding experts).
Larry Zentner, Inzenka’s managing director, says: “This is a way for local retailers to work together to reduce costs and serve their customers in a more focussed way. For customers, it means they have the benefits of shopping locally any time of day. One delivery means you are effectively car-sharing with your neighbours. This is about buying a few local items as part of an overall shop.”
It is being piloted in Hereford: florists, bakeries, butchers, grocery stores and local producers and farm stores have signed up. The plan is to then roll out the scheme with the creation of a UK-wide network of local centres, and eventually to include services like dry cleaning and shoe repairs. Inzenka plans to target high streets “where local shops play a prominent role within the community”. Next on the list is Worcestershire (in particular, Kidderminster, Evesham and Great Malvern) and Shropshire (Ludlow and Shrewsbury).
However, not all retail experts agree that going online will bring business back to the high street. The problem is that independents can’t compete with the major retailers on price and accessibility, argues retail expert Clare Rayner of Retailchampion.co.uk.
“The local high street should be about personal service, social interaction and unique places to shop,” she says.
“Look at Europe: shops shut for hours during the day, then do a buzzing evening trade. If people want to shop at 8pm, the answer isn’t to go online, it’s to open your shop at 8pm.”
However, Neil Powell, a butcher who has listed his shop on Openhighstreet says he took 30 orders in the first week after the site launched.
“That’s 30 orders that we wouldn’t have got otherwise,” he says. “This is helping people who can’t make it to the high street.”