Its time to rethink the high street

Future

Another slow year for retail

Once again, shopping before and after Christmas this year has taken place from the comfort of my sofa with a hot mug of tea, thumbing through customer reviews for products with well-known online retailers. At the end of another year that has seen significant change for high street retailers, my visits to the centre of our towns and cities is no longer motivated by retail bargains.

Before Christmas week I did venture into Shrewsbury high street. I spent an enjoyable couple of hours feeling a little nostalgic as I wandered amongst the Christmas crowds and buskers, wrapped up warm and explored what remains of the large departments stores. It certainly felt festive, it was busy and it took me back to pre-web times of visits to town growing up with my family and friends.

Christmas music and lights alongside hot food and spiced latte made the whole experience quite enjoyable.  Thoroughly infused with the spirit of Christmas, as soon as I returned home, I made a pot of tea, logged into my favourite online retailers and complete my Christmas shopping.

During those two hours in the town centre, my spend totalled about 15 pounds on coffee and lunch. Within minutes of arriving home however, I had more than trebled that spend on a few Christmas gifts from amazon.

Functional vs Experiential

It is no surprise that the town centre, or the high street of the future is becoming less focussed as a retail destination. For me that visit into Shrewsbury was largely about soaking up the Christmas lights, sounds and festivities, finding some interesting food, meeting other people and experiencing a social event. 

Most things that I saw in the stores were cheaper and more convenient to have delivered from an online source.  Retail has become increasingly functional and less experiential and that may be more about me than the health of our retailers and the way others make purchases, but it’s clear to all that something is changing, not just on the high street, but in a world of greater social awareness and responsibility maybe we should expect an overall downward trend in consumption.

Re-invent the High Street

Industry experts and futurists have been speculating for some time on the future of the high street. Many of them agree on a few things, that in order for the high street to remain relevant, it needs to:

  1.  rethink its role as a social and community destination
  2. attract greater numbers through reliable, cheaper transport links
  3. address the local needs for convenience

I guess that my question is, does the high street need to remain relevant for retail?  

From a retail perspective there are far more opportunities for growth through digital channels.  The recent trend for checkout-free stores is a mechanism to increase the speed and convenience of purchase from a physical location, but I am not convinced that it will survive beyond the novelty phase and may be dropped by the sophisticated consumer for high value goods, relatively quickly.  Maybe it will persist for consumables and impulse purchases or become the standard high street retail option for local communities who need convenience and low value purchases on their doorstep. 

Use of technology such as augmented reality and artificial intelligence may make the shopping experience a little more immersive and personalised, but as these technologies become mainstream and grow in use within other parts of our life, they will have greater relevance in enhancing the home shopping experience from the consumers own virtual reality technology than the on-location experience.

From a social aspect the high street can offer a centralised community destination and convenience for local communities to purchase necessities but with an increased demand for tailored, personalised experiences across many aspects of our life, I do wonder if a trend towards segmented, themed and personalised social experiences will render the increasingly homogenised high street even more irrelevant for tomorrows consumer.

Imaginative, not nostalgic

Re-thinking the high street’s role in our future may mean breaking away from the desire to re-capture its time as the heart of a community or the assumption that it must be retail focused. I accept that there will continue to be a need for necessities and convenience goods to support local needs but, in general, I suggest that retailers have had their time on the high street.  

I believe that we should be more imaginative and less nostalgic. If we want to avoid a handful of mini-revivals then we must question whether the high street needs a revival at all. Perhaps there is more appropriate use for these spaces that support local community needs but does not primarily focus on providing retail variety, fashion outlets and services that are more convenient to provide online.

Does a centralised retail destination on our high streets make sense, increasing transportation demands into what is a relatively confined area for an expanding population? Or, are we better served with a more de-centralised variety of ultra-local community and online delivery options?  If so, then we need to consider how best to regenerate and reuse these centrally located spaces for higher value purposes (not necessarily commercial ventures) and allow retailers to embrace a different future outside of the high street. 

Trust me, I have bad news

General Musings

Colin Powell is often credited with the saying “Bad news isn’t wine, it doesn’t improve with age”. Whether he coined the phrase or not, it’s a sentiment that I completely agree with.  In my work, dealing with clients with demanding projects sometimes means that I need to deliver what may be described as ‘bad news’.  However, I am of the opinion that we can make life simpler for ourselves and take some of the stress out of delivering bad news in a business setting.

If I make a promise to do something for a friend at a future date, and then fail to make good on that promise, then my friend is disappointed.   People do this with our children all the time. Making promises only to let them down because something important came up at work or in the complex world we live in.

With children the event that caused the broken promise maybe hard to grasp and it is therefore difficult for children to accept a broken promise, whatever the reason.  In business, our stakeholders will also find it hard to accept a broken promise unless we help them comprehend the reasons.

I have the same basic model for all commitments that I make.  Its nuanced however and with friends and family there is a different balance than there is with business and stakeholder management.  We can consider two things that relate to providing the context for a commitment.  Both are interrelated and many may consider them to be ‘Common Sense’ but all too often I see people making hard work of these two basics of good quality ‘commitment management’.  

Manage the expectation

Managing expectations is not about being flaky or vague.  It’s not about never making commitments or promises and it’s certainly not about qualifying every single commitment that we make with a ‘get out of jail’ clause.

It is about giving people a fuller picture of the world and the things that may knock us off course or change the future. It’s about developing a good feel for probability of events and determining when we can be really certain and when we need to let others know of the potential pitfalls and dangers. 

We don’t do it enough and all too often we make promises that have a low probability of being fulfilled and we do that because all too often we don’t like to tell people things that they may perceive as ‘bad news’.

Project managers out there may say this is basic contracting or risk management.  I agree that is important, but I think we need to be more intimate than that.  It is important to engage in a personal way, since at the core of the ‘bad news’ problem is trust and strong trust is not accomplished through documented contracts and documented risks but through honesty, openness and intimacy.

Getting that balance right is an art, especially if we don’t want to make any commitment worthless. However, if done well, it brings the world of the promisor and promisee much closer together it  builds strong mutual trust and in terms of the ‘age of the bad news’ …. it’s right there at birth. 

Clearly though things can happen that mean a promise is going to be unfulfilled. The future is uncertain.

Manage the message

Relaying the simple fact that a promise has been broken, is not enough. Once again we must consider a larger picture.  Providing context and alternatives is vital.  Handled badly and we see an erosion of trust that can disappear to nothing. Again, it is an art and delivering bad news early with options and a plan, goes a long way to retaining some trust.

In my experience what makes a significant difference is the confidence and positive manner that bad news is delivered in.  It really is about managing the message.  It is about providing the context for why the promise is broken, why it can be rectified and the facts of the new situation on the ground. It’s about delivering all this early, with confidence and with a plan for succeeding.

I have seen IT professionals with clients nervously explaining that a milestone has slipped and yet, they are unable to provide a new date for the milestone to be achieved, unable to reference back to any risk that have now materialised, unable to explain tangible reasons for slippage, unable to display any confidence that they have a handle on the situation and unable to explain why they did not deliver the bad news earlier.  The clients expression is one of experiencing a very bad taste indeed.

These nervous individuals are otherwise competent people, who appear to have buried their heads, hiding from the perceived pain  of delivering bad news.  When their heads finally emerge, they find that rebuilding trust is infinitely more difficult when that trust has completely disappeared.

Teams with purpose

Teams

I work with agile software development teams a lot. These days as a coach rather than a scrum master or developer. With the Scrum methodology, a ‘retrospective’ is the recognised mechanism for improving as individuals and as a team.

For anyone unfamiliar with Agile and Scrum methodology, www.scrum.org is a good place to begin, but in layman’s terms a retrospective is an opportunity for the team to come together and inspect how they performed and what actions to take to improve their collective performance.

The widely adopted format is to hold a regular meeting and discuss

  • What went well ?
  • What could be improved ?
  • What will the team commit to improve ?

In the past I have found that it helps to add some further structure to this discussion and encourage teams to consider the above in the context of:

  • People
  • Process
  • Tools

Screenshot 2018-12-06 at 18.57.57

In the last few years, I’ve continued to encourage the above structure but have supplemented this by asking teams to consider another question.

What is our purpose?

Increasingly the teams I work with approach software development in a discovery led way. Determining the underlying user needs and motivation before making a single keystroke However, its not unusual for this valuable context (the purpose) to fade or become lost entirely as software development progresses.

Artistic representations of the vision placed centrally in the teams physical location, regular user research involving all team members and close working with end users through test phases does help to avoid this, but I find that including a purpose discussion within the retrospective is a useful trigger point for re-aligning on ‘the big WHY?’

Asking the team to regularly consider the purpose question can reveal some patterns that allow for specific improvement actions to be agreed.

Screenshot 2018-12-06 at 19.02.59

Stories about NASA janitors may help to us understand the motivational value of being part of the big picture (check out Mark Zuckerberg’s speech in July 2017).

However, developing a clear understanding of purpose also makes good commercial sense, certainly within software engineering for customer facing services keeping teams aligned with an increasingly dynamic environment and ever-evolving customer needs.

There are people in there

Teams

I have no intention of rushing today. I arrive in London in about an hour, at which point the day of meetings, teleconferences and making ‘value add’ observations begins, but only after a flat white at an overpriced independent coffee house.

This evening, I meet up with a well know Agile Guru. In my industry this is fast becoming shorthand for Individual with common sense who understands that organisations are formed of real people.

It should be interesting.  He is a prolific author and (I am told) an impressive speaker. In a way I am more interested in how his ideas land in the minds of some of my colleagues and clients rather than the detail of what he has to say.  If for one moment they consider that the most complex part of their organisation is the interactions between people, then the session will be valuable.

1200px-City_of_London_skyline_from_London_City_Hall_-_Sept_2015_-_Crop_Aligned

“I work for an organisation, focussed on delivering excellent digital experiences, conceived, created and supported by talented resources globally.”  I hear a similar phrase every day.  Love or hate the corporate vernacular, but don’t forget, there are people in there.

What will the Contented Frog become?

General Musings

I suspect that many bloggers reflect upon their first post whilst writing their first post. As with most things in life the first time for anything is often recognised and embraced as a ‘moment’ whilst sometimes the finale may slip by unrecognised.

I am not sure what this site will become.  A reflection of me, of course.  I certainly identify with the Contented Frog.  Finding contentment and peace in a turbulent world is an achievement and ignorant bliss is increasingly difficult to maintain. 

Perhaps this will become an exploration of how to find that contentment in a world of growing connections and limitless encounters.

Beautiful Devon, Summer 2019