We visit the new Clicks and Mortar store from Amazon and ask if this is the future of shopping
Recently shopping seems to have become a bit of a drag, with anything that comes under the heading of ‘boring daily necessities’ being ordered online. I still try to support local bookshops and enjoy a hunt around a market, but time is always a factor. Not everyone agrees with me though. Witness the recent queues for Uniqlo x Kaws - there is life in the high street yet.
Is this yet another article bemoaning the state of Britain’s high streets? Not quite. But before we get into the good stuff, let’s recap why some people are worried: Last year we reported on the woes of Debenhams and House of Fraser; Boots has set to close more that 200 stores in the next two years. Marks and Spencer is closing 100 stores by 2020. The quick answer is to blame online shopping. Being able to order with a tap or a swipe seems have replaced the Saturday afternoon trawl around the shops.
Online giant Amazon has chosen Manchester as the launch pad for its new project: a real shop featuring handpicked business that currently retail online.
Indeed, Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley (who once said the high street was in a “downward death spiral”, despite taking the opportunity buying up troubled stores) has called for an online sales tax in order to rebalance the taxation burden on bricks and mortar stores. It seems Amazon et al are in the firing line.
But what about the positives? According to a recent report from Colliers, Manchester is the busiest high street in the UK after London. Over £900 million was spent there in the last year and more than 13,500 people are employed in retail in the city centre, which is 11% of the sector’s total workforce in Greater Manchester. It’s crucial to safeguard such an important economic driver.
So how can we future-proof our high street? According to a report from the University of Southampton, ”Overall, what becomes clear from the evidence reviewed is that the experiential side of the town centre journey – that is to say, social interaction, visits to cafes and cultural activities, together with the overall town centre atmosphere – heighten enjoyment, increase dwell time and spend in centres, and deter consumers from resorting to online alternatives.” So in-store events such as talks, craft workshops and book clubs, and a pivot to food and drink as a replacement shopping experience have been key. Altrincham is a classic example of this – once beleaguered, its regenerated market has seen it held up as a shining example to other towns.
There has been a quantum shift in shopping habits, affected by, yes, the web, m-retailing (i.e. buying from your mobile, including on social media) and what academics call ‘convenience culture’ (the ease of having things delivered). Research showed that a shopping ‘trip’ took three times as long in a town centre than online, and that is not including travel times or cost. As consumers are increasing time-poor, the only option is to make a long, unhurried browse a go-to leisure option in and of itself.
High streets seem to work best when there is a mix of independents for the cool factor, big-name stores for brand recognition and cafés, galleries and public spaces for leisure. Town planners are also taking a much more organic approach when considering all the different factors that could affect retail. For instance green space, visual appearance and shifting opening hours are now all considered important elements in the shopping experience, whereas once they were dismissed. Manchester City Council has also promised a retail discount on business rates for 2019/20 which should relieve a little bit of the pressure on smaller shops.
The rise of what is known as “omni-channel retailing” may save the high street yet. This is where online searching, in-store browsing and click and collect all merge together into a consumerist kaleidoscope of options. Which brings me to the original inspiration for this piece. Far from turning its back on the high street, retail giant Amazon has decided to embrace it - and it has chosen Manchester as the launch pad for its new project: a real shop featuring handpicked business that currently retail online.
The Clicks and Mortar programme is part of a year-long pilot, launched in conjunction with small business support organisation Enterprise Nation, that aims to help up to a hundred up-and-coming online businesses.
I visited the new Clicks and Mortar store, partly funded by Amazon, to see what they had in mind. It certainly had a different feel, with well-cut dresses hanging next to a table displaying men’s grooming products. On another table, heaps of pearl jewellery splayed out on to high-end speakers, while organic condiments took up the back of the shop and adult scooters dominated the window display. All in all the feel is of a niche, hipster Aladdin’s cave.
The idea is to give brands that are already sold through Amazon “their first taste of physical retail” (although at least one brand present is already sold in shops, though not widely). Many small brands are online-only precisely because they can’t afford to set up their own physical shop, so this lets them get in touch with their customers.
Lauren, studio manager for Swifty Scooters, the aforementioned brand of cool adult scooters. Told me: “Jason (who founded the business along with wife Camilla) was approached by Enterprise Nation to showcase the product. They were keen as we are a Manchester brand and it was important to them to have us on board.
“In general, trading in a shop setting is really expensive. This way we are paying only a small fee to sublet, it doesn’t break the bank for us the way setting up and promoting out own shop would. It has been really beneficial for us, being able to interact with customers, letting them try out the scooter in store and getting the brand recognition. We’ve found that we’ve had an increase in online sales as well.
“Because we are a local brand, with our studio based in Salford, it was important for us to get the word out here and we think Amazon have been good at helping with that.”
Amazon has been called an “unlikely saviour” of the high street. Some critics might be tempted with stronger language, seeing as Amazon pay £64.3m in business rates in the UK last year, compared to struggling Debenhams, which paid over £80m. The Government has proposed a digital services tax, which will debut in 2020, but it has to be designed so that the thousands of small companies that only have an online presence precisely because they can’t afford bricks and mortar stores are not affected.
Will Broome, CEO and Founder of retail tech app Ubamarket, commented, "It is great to see that a giant of the e-commerce world sees the benefit of bricks and mortar retail spaces in this age of next day delivery and one-click payments. Despite the convenience of sites such as Amazon, there are vast benefits for customers and suppliers in physical stores. With the decline of the UK high-street, some retail players would be wise to look at the likes Amazon and incorporate technology into their service offering."
The Clicks and Mortar store is the department store writ small. The difference, apart from size, was that each product was obviously of good quality and within each category there was only one offering. Dizzying amounts of choice is relegated to online. Real world is now all about ‘the edit’ - a tightly curated collection that takes overwhelm out of the equation. Debenhams and House of Fraser take note.
Despite some reservations about the Clicks and Mortar model, I have to say it had its intended effect. Having gone purely for a nosy, I ended up purchasing a bottle of artisanal beetroot ketchup, simply because I could taste it beforehand (give the garlic mayo a go if you can, mmm) and the salesperson was extremely nice. So now my purse is £2.50 lighter and I'm all the happier for it.
Amazon’s Clicks and Mortar pop-up store is at 5 St Mary's Gate, Manchester, M1 1PX. The shop will be open 10am-7pm Monday to Saturday until the 15th.