Speculation that the growth of online shopping signals the death of the high street is premature, claims the boss of a Birmingham business that is thriving on the Internet but has just opened a store in a Midland town centre.
Chris Thomas, Managing Director of branded footwear retailer Cloggs.co.uk, says new technology is helping, rather than hindering, the growth of high street shopping. Smartphones and tablets are enabling shoppers to surf the Internet while they visit stores in town and city centres, he explains.
‘‘If you go back two or three years I think the high street did have problems, and I think those problems are still there, but the retail industry is accommodating it in a different way,’’ says Chris, whose company opened an outlet in Shrewsbury on December 7 this year. ‘‘When everyone was talking about the death of the high street it was because people were going to stop at home and shop online. But actually people can now have the best of both worlds. They can shop in the high street and online at the same time. It doesn’t have to be either/or. Mobile smartphones and tablets have really brought about the idea of having a showroom on the high street as a way in which the high street is going to fight back.’’
Originally an independent store trading in Birmingham city centre’s Oasis market, and later a tenant in the Bullring, Cloggs was acquired by JD Sports in February 2013. Chris says that investment by the parent company meant that the footwear retailer had the finance to upgrade its website and open a store in Shrewsbury.
‘‘We’ve repositioned the brand, launching our new cutting edge responsive technology website in August,’’ says 34-year-old Chris. He explains that responsive technology automatically adjusts a website’s size and graphics to match the requirements of a smartphone or tablet.
‘‘Everybody’s trying to work out how they can take advantage of mobiles and tablets which are becoming the dominant platform for browsing and shopping on the Internet. Since the iPad launch in 2009 it’s changed the way people shop online. The problem is, websites built during the time of online growth weren’t mobile optimised. With responsive technology the website you’ve got changes itself depending on the size of screen.’’
Mobile and tablet traffic to the Cloggs’ site has increased significantly since the August launch but Chris still sees the potential of having a real shop in a real town, particularly as Cloggs’ Bullring store closed this year following the takeover by JD Sports.
‘‘We decided we didn’t want to have Cloggs as a shopping centre brand, it’s very difficult to compete, very expensive, but we do see it having a place on the high streets of the more traditional market towns. The plan is to make the Shrewsbury store successful and then we’d like to start rolling it out around the Midlands as soon as we can justify it.’’
Possible locations include Lichfield, Rugby, Burton and Worcester, Chris reveals.
‘‘They’re all good thriving shopping centres that we’d like to have a look at.’’
However, for high street shops to thrive help is needed from landlords and local councils, Chris claims.
‘‘High rates and rents and things like that are still the barrier to entry when it comes to independent businesses making it work. There’s so much local government could do very quickly to have an impact on the economy. There aren’t enough parking spaces and the spaces there are are priced ridiculously thigh. You’re almost penalised for wanting to go and spend money in the town centre. That’s absolutely crazy.
‘‘Why isn’t there a three month rates freeze or rates reduction in the first year of trading? You’re bringing jobs into the area, you’re adding value to the high street, I don’t understand why the subject of rates is off the cards as something to discuss. It was pleasing in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement when he introduced some sort of rates relief for local businesses but I don’t think it goes far enough, it’s needs to be a bit more dramatic.’’
Being in a town centre returns Cloggs to its roots. It was founded in the early 1980s by Chris’s father Russell who placed it in Oasis market, a collection of trendy fashion boutiques, which he owned. A man ahead of his time, he set up a Cloggs Internet website in 1998.
‘‘It was very slow, it was all dial up connections, the websites were all basic and very poorly coded and you had to make 30 or 40 clicks to make a transaction, it was incredibly difficult,’’ Chris recalls. ‘‘But even then it was making orders and you could see this thing had potential but my father didn’t have the resources or the ability to get into it so it stayed in the background, generating a couple of orders every other day from all parts of the world.’’
Russell passed away in 2001 so Chris and his brother Nick, who both worked in London, returned to Birmingham.
‘‘Our original brief was just to tie up the business, try and find a good home for Oasis which was doing very well, but we found this curiosity of a little business called Cloggs which was spitting out orders every couple of days. We thought we’d have a go at doing something interesting so we put more product onto the website, invested in customer services and the website itself, got better product photography and better brands and started to get into Google with the early adoption of Search Engine Optimisation and AdWords. We were pushing an open door so the business grew very, very quickly. The Internet side of the business was becoming bigger than the Oasis part of the business.’’
Cloggs the shop, eventually moved from Oasis to the Bullring and the Oasis market was sold in 2010. Cloggs’ head office is now based at Gravelly Industrial Park, beneath Spaghetti Junction, employing a total of 40 staff.
More innovations, including an app and a ‘Click and Collect’ service, are planned for the Internet side of the business but Chris is enthused by the idea of getting back to the high street.
‘‘I was at the Shrewsbury store opening and it was fantastic. Shrewsbury high street was buzzing, it had street entertainers, there was a real festival atmosphere, it was a joy to be out and about round there. Seeing things like that made me think shopping in the high street should be more in my calendar than it is.’’