Trend report: Can media help save the high street?

We are just over a month into the year and have already seen the stores La Senza and Peacocks fall into the hands of the administrators. Mark Banham talks to the media industry to gauge how it is planning to address retail challenges to help rescue the high street.

La Senza: collapsed into administration in January
La Senza: collapsed into administration in January

The summer riots may have shown a graphic picture of UK high-street stores literally under attack from hooded gangs, determined on looting every electrical product or pair of expensive trainers they could carry, but it's not the only from of attack our major retailers have faced, and it's not over yet.

Only last week we saw the latest retailing domino finally teeter past the bankruptcy brink as the discount fashion retailer Peacocks finally lost its plumage, closing its doors and taking 10,000 high street jobs with it.

Just the week before, the La Senza lingerie chain had suffered the same fate, stripped bare by bad trading and triggering 1,300 redundancies and the closure of more than 100 outlets. Only the intervention of Arabian retail group Alshaya – which bought 60 La Senza stores – cauterised the wound of a further 1,100 job loses.

The high-street retailers join an increasingly depressing roll call of failed high-street ventures including outdoor outfitter Blacks, which was eventually saved from the gallows by JD Sports, and, prior to that, women's clothing store Jane Norman, off-licence Oddbins and booksellers Borders.

Other retailers that have had to downsize during this recession include shoe store Barratts, chocolate retailer Thorntons and, most infamously, multiple-product retailer Woolworths, which finally closed its doors in January 2009 with the loss of 27,000 jobs.

Festive cheer

In the final week's run-up to Christmas, there was a bounce-back of sorts, with an estimated last-minute splurge from consumers clawing in £3.5bn. But much of this was at reduced prices according to retail analysts, as sales kicked off earlier than ever in response to the dour economic climate, with more than 11 million shoppers becoming involved on Christmas Eve's "Panic Saturday" in a last-ditch attempt to grab final festive bargains.

Arguably, the most high-profile campaign across the Christmas period (and one that will be discussed at this year's Media 360) is the festive work for retailer John Lewis.

Paul Knight, executive director at Manning Gottlieb OMD, the Omnicom Group media agency who's clients include John Lewis, says that media must take responsibility and defend its retail cleints from the threat of the downturn : "Media can help the high street and retailers in general, but not in isolation.  Collaboration with clients [and not just the marketing department], creative agencies and media owners is essential to ensure that a retailers communications are clear, stand for something and cut through. 

Paul Knight

"The retail category is irrelevant, there are winners and losers in each category.  The key ingredient is how a brand behaves which then leads to how the consumer perceives that brand. After all, actions speak louder than words.
"There are a number of things that are key to retailing today, such as offering consumer choices, service, the articulation of value and convenience through multi channel platforms.  If retailers embrace these big consumer trends media can help communicate these benefits to the most relevant consumers, at the right time and in the right place.  If this can be done collaboratively, retailers increase their chances of succeeding in such tough times."

In comparison to the last minute high street rush, online retail sales during December 2011 were in rude health in comparison, up nearly 16.5% on the same month the year before, with consumers spending £8bn from their laptops despite challenging times.

This, and the shift of retail to out-of-town retail parks, has combined to decimate the high-street economy since the start of the downturn in 2008 – so much so that market research specialists Mintel uncovered that a third of independent stores are now cafes, restaurants and takeaways rather than traditional retailers.

Danny Donovan, managing partner and head of the retail group at MediaCom, says: "The retail landscape can be broken down in many ways, but the most stark in terms of success over recent decades is the traditional high street; the edge/out of town, and online.

"The traditional high street has changed almost beyond recognition, and whilst there are exceptions, it is generally in a poor state.

"Media cannot save the traditional high street. Ultimately, only customers can do that. Thus far they've voted emphatically with their feet, and [computer] mouses, which makes that a strong tide to reverse."

Donovan says that retailers reliant on, "high-ticket, non-food, or discretionary purchases," have suffered, "even in some cases in spite of huge and increasing advertising budgets."

Danny Donovan

However, he says that high street retailers – including larger chains – will have to rely on the, "necessary support of landlords, banks and local councils," as part of any rescue plan.

Changing brand perceptions

Denise Turner, head of insights at MPG Media Contacts, who runs the media account for high-street shoe retailer Clarks, thinks that the media can go some way to saving the high street by changing brand perceptions and that some of the recent high-street retail brands that have faced closure have had difficulty doing that.

She says: "The sort of stuff we have been doing recently with Clarks was to make sure there was a consistent link. For instance, the last campaign we worked on was print, outdoor, online, but there were quite a lot of different elements to it. We were really trying to give people a sense that Clarks had changed, in terms of where we appeared, but also what we were trying to say to them.

Denise Turner

"Media, I think, still has a big role to play in telling people about the brands on the high street, which also includes spending in recessionary times.

"Brands that keep spending and keep telling people the great story behind them, benefit from when consumers start spending more money again, because they stay top of mind with people. It's all about finding ways [through media] that keep your brand top of mind and creating fresh perceptions."

However, Turner adds that high-street brands have to "make sure their [media] partnerships and their tie-ins make sense to the consumer" or they risk damaging their high-street brand as much as they could save it.

Steve Henderson, client director at Mindshare, who heads the agency's Argos account, says: "It's undoubtedly a tough time for non-food retailers and a lot of [retail] categories are suffering."

He brings up a recent example of how media managed to address the "heartland families" who are the Argos target audience for the catalogue aspect of the business and tend to use ITV1 as their main media channel.

Following concerns from the high-street and shopping park retailer that the catalogue business may suffer a slump (Argos brings out a catalogue every six months), Mindshare worked with the broadcaster's in-house creative team, ITV Creative, to create 10-second vignettes that took a storyline from some popular ITV programming and wove in new products from the latest catalogue.

This led to a competition where consumers had to pick up the catalogue from the retailer and watch 'Emmerdale' to get the answer, with rare access for the advertiser to the advanced 'Emmerdale' scripts.

The number of catalogues picked up from Argos stores increased 5% during the period of the campaign.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Addressing the subject of how media can do its part to save the high street, Henderson says: "If we are bandying clichés around, then necessity is the mother of invention to a certain extent, and I think we are seeing that from media agencies with [high street] clients at the moment.

Steve Henderson

"If you take a step back and look at it from a broader retail perspective, it is a challenging time for retailers, a challenging time for the high street and that knocks on to agencies, as spend is under pressure.

"I think we are all looking at new models of working, new opportunities and one of those bigger opportunities has to be integration.

"Retailers should become more and more aware of integrating their 'owned' assets, which include their websites and the content they produce with their paid assets and organising that better around the consumer path to purchase. "

Henderson says there needs to be a new model for retailers to see the high street thrive again and drive that all-important footfall into stores to stop key retail brands disappearing from our town centres.

"The old model of this many television ratings (TVRs), with that much press, to equal job done, is becoming less of a percentage of the overall planning thinking that goes into a retail account." 

Of course, some media platforms actually exist on the high street, and could be seen to be essential to retail footfall.

Spencer Berwin, managing director for sales at JCDecaux, makes the case that the outdoor industry is already ahead of the curve as far as the promotion of retail is concerned in pushing footfall to stores: "In outdoor we believe we are already rewriting the rulebook," he says.  

Spencer Berwin

"Our investment in digital sites and overnight posting means that outdoor can do a branding and a promotional job. More and more retailers are seeing the benefit of outdoor’s new flexibility – indeed retail spend on outdoor was up 14% in 2011."

The austerity/celebration paradox

Donovan sums up with his thoughts on how media needs to shift to protect these valuable retail assets, suggesting that during a year that will bring not only the London 2012 Olympics to these shores, but will also showcase the pomp and ceremony of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee brushing alongside a continued sense of austerity, media agencies working in partnership with media owners, need to find a new way of thinking.

"Retail strategies and media lay downs have become too predictable, undifferentiated and promotionally focused," he says.

"Retailers following the lead of someone else, or those handcuffed by 'like-for-likes' mirroring what they did last year, will see effectiveness diminish, especially in 2012, which will swing between austerity and celebration.

"The commercial imperative and a recognition that audiences are changing has made even the largest and previously least flexible media owners more open to new ideas than ever. We have to try to rewrite the rules of how retailers use traditional media channels."

There is no doubt that in the UK, the retail environment is entering a period of paradox, as Donovan says, as industries, media and retail have never been faced with a line of austerity running parallel with a potential line of celebration and escapism.

It's a line that retailers and their media agencies need to tread carefully to ensure they have the potential celebration of improved trading results and avoid the very real austerity of facing the administrators.

Follow Mark Banham on Twitter @Banham72

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