The first wave of post-Christmas trading results from the UK’s leading retailers has been largely disappointing. Although there are some winners – including Aldi and Lidl, the discount grocers, Dunelm, JD Sports and Next – the majority have seen sales fall. Tesco, Sainsbury’s/Argos, Morrisons, M&S, John Lewis, Superdry, Joules and Card Factory have all reported underlying sales declines.

On Sunday I made my annual outing to the January sales, looking for a new pair of shoes. Having done so, the challenge facing the country’s shopkeepers is clear: be brilliant at something customers value, or don’t bother at all.

I started my shopping trip at John Lewis. Despite hanging around for 3 or 4 minutes in the shoe area, not one member of staff came to see me. That was no big problem, as I didn’t find the choice on offer very interesting. Score: 0/10.

Next up, House of Fraser. The store looks like what the business is: an organisation on its knees. It was cold – in all senses of the word – empty and dull. The good news is that I found some shoes I liked and went to get some service. The sales assistant went into the back room, found a couple of boxes, handed them to me and went back to her conversation with her mate. Needless to say, I didn’t stay long. Score 1/10.

The third shop was Schuh. At least the store was busy and had a good range, even though it wasn’t necessarily 100% focused on the needs of a once-a-year, 54-year old male shoe shopper. Perhaps because it was so busy, there was again no staff available to provide personal service. Score 4/10.

By this stage, I was getting more than a tad frustrated. After an aimless trawl along Nottingham’s shopping streets, I came across a small, independent shoe shop called Peters. The experience was completely different to anything I’d had during my first three browses. Specifically:

  • Both Peter and Dave, his assistant, introduced themselves and smiled;
  • Even though they were both serving customers, they asked me to wait one minute and they would help me;
  • When I explained to Dave that I have a problem with width fittings, he simply smiled and told me not to worry as he was, essentially, a foot doctor!
  • They found a range of potential shoes and sizes and helped me find the best fit;
  • They provided an insert for free so that both shoes fitted perfectly; and
  • They gave me free products and vouchers for shopping with them.

Guess what? I didn’t just buy one pair of shoes off them, I bought two! I was so relieved and grateful that I’d found a shoe shop that cared I bought a brown pair of boots for everyday wear as well as a green suede pair (pictured).

Now, I know that not every shop is set up for brilliant service, but every retailer needs to be brilliant at something. Aldi and Lidl are brilliant at offering cheap food; Next is brilliant at offering great value on-style clothes; and JD Sports is brilliant at having the most fashionable range of trainers.

The even bigger issue for high street stores is that they are all up against Amazon, where I can buy what I need with a single click of a mouse. To beat Amazon, the only answer is brilliance. The problem for John Lewis, M&S and the other high street laggards is that they are on a downward spiral. Their lack of success is limiting their ability to invest in service (or product development or the overall experience), further damaging their reason for being.

Peters Shoes and the other post-Christmas winners suggest that there are some green shoots out there. But the swathe of empty units on Nottingham’s most popular shopping streets highlights the difficulty many retailers, both large and small, have in being brilliant enough.

© Stuart Cross, 2020. All rights reserved.