Lessons from New York and Toronto?

Putting to one side the 24 hour city that New York regards as a norm, there are some things I have noted in New York particularly – and specifically in Toronto. I have had a few days to reflect on my latest trip.

Daniel Liebskind's Royal Ontario Museum - Toronto

Daniel Liebskind’s Royal Ontario Museum – Toronto

New York epitomises ‘change’. In fact it is constantly evolving. I probably visit, on average, every six months. And in that period shops come and go. Or, specifically they move.

Bleeker Street records is a joyous place – but it’s not on Bleeker Street these days – it’s around the corner on E4th. They moved because the rent was too high. No tears / rants – just moved. I blogged about the Samsung ‘shop’ last week – when I was last in NYC it was a Victorinox penknife shop – that is now around the corner. Earnest Sewn in the Meatpacking district is gone. Etiqueta Negra clothes were fantastic – but the shop is boarded up!

The City evolves into a new ‘thing’. That is perhaps the attraction.

It seems to me that nothing is precious. Location is not the key (5th Avenue may be the exception). They have a confidence in their product not their location?

Don’t we get bored with the vanilla High Streets around our Cities? Claires’ Accessories may have a place in some peoples hearts but they don’t differentiate?

To some extent technology helps New York. Social media keeps people posted on where things are now at. This will be key in the future.

Both cities (New York and Toronto) have managed to ‘bag’ some world class Architects to do work – Daniel Liebskind has buildings in both – his Royal Ontario Museum is spectacular! Frank Ghery has two buildings in New York. These, in their own right, give a place a huge vote of confidence. Their buildings may have a ‘marmite’ quality – but that doesn’t matter really – people talk about it. People stop and look.

These places also have plenty to do; they hook you into dwell time. And the longer you dwell the more you spend! They make it easy to stay and spend.

There are some great lessons in here for us in Nottingham?

As shop that sells nothing?

When Steve Jobs set out to build an Apple store he created something that didn’t have selling at its heart – it was about the user experience. Of course it has been phenomenally successful. In fact the 5th Avenue store in New York (a few blocks from where I pen this post) holds the record for the most profitable shop in the world on a sales per square foot basis.


But down in Soho there is something afoot which might even shock Apple. In an Apple store there is the experience and the sale alongside. But their fiercest rival, Samsung, has opened a store which sells nothing! In fact they give stuff away. T-shirts with your own print design, coffee and cookies.

The shop is perfectly laid out in what can only be described as lifestyle vignettes. There are sofas, chairs, TV’s, a photo booth, a coffee bar, high benches and lots of ‘white space’.

You are encouraged to wander and engage (for points!) with staff. They are expert, the experiences are all about their equipment – as you would expect. But there is no hard sell. In fact there is no sell at all. They want you to enjoy the place.


Samsung spend four times the amount Apple do on marketing – and whilst they have a wider range of products this seems to have been reflected in this ‘store’.

This a fascinating concept and perhaps Shop 3.0.

Of course I have touched on their product range before and I think they have edged the iPhone 5 with the Galaxy 3. Places like this can only help cement a rosy future.

Can someone please do this here?

I’m back – I found my way to the office.


I was in London last week – where it is easier to get around than here, but I digress. I had a few minutes to kill near Carnaby Street and saw this quirky development – in a courtyard. Shops on the second floor, cafes and the ground and first. It is Carnaby Street so does attract a certain type of retailer and customer. But it had a really good feel.

This is the sort of place people like to congregate in – compact, quirky, interesting even intimate, The coffee shop was under the staircase. It was independent of course.

There is something special about finding ‘secret’ places, shops tucked away which have to live by their reputation. It was evident that there were plenty of regulars here. I was just lucky!

I have explored here on lots of occasions my views about where retail should be heading – firmly away from the national multiples. Re-creating this sort of environment is not difficult. It takes some imagination and a few great shops and cafes to kick start it.

I loved it – and wished it were here in Nottingham – I would have my regular coffee there every day!

Nottingham – so just how many vacant shops do we have?

Although I’m not advocating we dwell on vacant shops in Nottingham – there are some loose ends from last months Re:Fest.


Matthew Hopkinson from the Local Data Company was on the panel for the launch of the Grimsey report. In fact Matthew was part of Grimsey’s gang of experts.

To the untrained eye the data may seem like pretty dull statistics – or statistics, statistics and bloody lies?

But they remain really important – they put us in a league table – and league tables get us noticed. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. In order to be successful we need to be seen to be successful. And publicly and visibly.

We shot to infamy late last year when Matthew published data that suggested Nottingham had a vacancy rate in excess of 30% If you live here and walk around the shops you will realise that this can’t be right. Nearly one in three shops are not empty.

The problem lies in what the definition of Nottingham’s retial centre is. Matthew (rightly) uses the Government definition of Nottingham. He has to in order to be able to plot places against each other. But Nottingham spreads far and wide and so you include many streets an places which you would simply not include in a logical centre.

So recently (funded by UK Regeneration, Nottingham City Council and Intu) Matthew recalculated the rate on the basis of what Nottingham City Council think the border is – and the rate drops to around 20%.

When you consider that the Broad Marsh Centre is included that sounds better.

However, I also know that the commercial agents in town still think the boundary is too wide. They don’t do this to skew the figures – merely to try to show what they consider the shopping area is – in other words where the values lie. When you factor Broad Marsh in the figure probably drops to the national average of just over 14%

This is important to us – and, again, we need to press home that we are not a derelict City! The figures are not representative!

Can Nottingham rise to the challenge

Bill Grimsey was in town again this week; as one of the speakers at Re:Fest. In fact it was more of a launch (again) of his alternative review of the High Street.


There was an an assembled panel – Grimsey, Chris Shellard, Matthew Hopkinson (the Local Data Company) and Cllr Nick MacDonald from Nottingham City Council. There was an assembled crown too – a mixture of national regeneration specialists and local folks with an interest in the subject.

Grimsey was on sparkling form. He had, of course, used Nottingham for the case study in his review. I was delighted he did this – and I had an opportunity to shape that.

He does acknowledge that it is going to take some time to for us to revive the patient – years perhaps. But we need a plan – a business Plan for the High Street. It needs to have a vision for the next 20/30 years. And everything the City does needs to take account of that plan. It isn’t difficult?

But there are some things we also need to do now. We must lobby this blinkered Government on the Rating Revaluation debacle. We cannot wait until 2017 for the revaluation – it has been put back 2 years. The reason is that business doesn’t like uncertainty. Of course business doesn’t like unfairness either. Rates are based on the 2008 rental values – most of which were set in the boom. They need correcting as values in the south have probably recovered whilst in the north they certainly haven’t. This is a national disgrace and politicians need to be reminded about this at every chance.

But the real message from Grimsey was that Nottingham has a real opportunity here – we have some brilliant assets – but we don’t use them – The Castle, Robin Hood – you know the drill. It doesn’t make sense to build more shops in the Victoria Centre when Broad Marsh is on its knees.

I was pleased that Nick MacDobnald embraced the report – suggesting that we should go to Government and get some cash to start delivering some of the recommendations.

Overall I think it was a positive discussion – we just now need to work out how to drive this forward…

Bill Grimsey – the lunch!

As I hinted at last week I had a very interesting and inspiring lunch on Thursday in London. I met Bill Grimsey, author of Sold Out – the story of the High Street. I blogged about him first here a few weeks ago.


Our lunch was in central London and I had nearly two hours of his wisdom and view on the retail world.

I had a view about Portas (see here) and he shares a similar view. Others have said that if you ask a window-dresser to write a report on the state of retailing, what you will get is … window dressing. Harsh perhaps, but Portas is a sticky plaster on a structural fault.

Bill is a proper retailer – he cut his teeth running real shops. He has a forensic knowledge of retailer and retailers.

After the critical acclaim of his book he isn’t just leaving it there – he is running a Grimsey Commission – which is going to present to Government in the Autumn. I had an isight into the sort of story the Government are going to hear.

There is a look back and there is analysis of where we are now. The history is important. That looks at how convenience and price have become the driving force for consumers. Shops have had to respond – hence you can’t simply blame the supermarkets, they have only done what we demanded!

We are a society which is time-poor.

But the really interesting part of the report will be where we need to go next. What we need to do to ensure that our High Streets don’t become row upon row of boarded up shops.

Tomorrow I’ll look at some of the ideas and concepts that have already been identified. But until then the question we need to think about is,

Are we ready for change“.

Nottingham Retail – a bold plan

Following on from my blog yesterday I have been thinking about how we might look at Nottingham against the backdrop that the High Street is dead.

Bodmin Focus Closing

If the first premise is that we have too many shops then there is an easy solution to this. We need to re-balance the equation. although the headlines were misleading a few months ago that we have 30% vacancy – we probably have around 15% in the City. That figure could increase to 20% easily over the next few years.

Intu control both Broadmarsh Centre and Victoria Centre. They have ambitions to extend the latter. It’s not entirely clear what their plans are for the former. We have always had a strong north-south shopping axis – with the east-west playing home to the secondary sectors – independents and their sort.

Broadmarsh remains awful.

My grand plan?

1. Take Broadmarsh out of the equation – find an alternative use for 50% of it (I have one). Retain 25% as retail by the Boots store. Create a fresh food market in the other 25% – with food grown on the roof – see my blog about Gotham Greens here. The Peoples Supermarket? Get Stonebridge Farm involved?

2. Only permit the Victoria Centre to be extended when the existing centre is full. Refuse the consent to extend in the meantime.

3. Loosen the Planning rules for a change of use on any retail unit on the east-west axis. No bookies but anything else goes.

4. Positively encourage independent retailers to set up anywhere on the east west axis – with grant aid, free Apprentices, business start up help etc.

5. Have periods when there is free parking in the City – every other Saturday for a period. On alternate weeks make public transport dirt cheap – £1 a ride.

There are lots of other ideas. And I know this is idealistic and would be controversial. But it might give Nottingham a real chance to grow and prosper.

Instead we are watching a slow death by a thousand cuts?

Shops, shops and the death of the High Street

I have just finished reading “Sold Out” by Bill Grimsey. It is probably the most insightful and frightening book about the High Street you can read. It really does pull no punches.

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 22.45.21

Bill is the former CEO of Wickes and has a formidable history of working retail. His book is thought provoking and, in the main, slightly worrying. His view of the High Street is that it is dead. Trying to bring is back to what we loved as kids (the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker?) are futile.

Bill sets out why things have changed to the extent that the world in retail in 2013 is not capable of going back. Whilst most people blame the supermarkets it is not entirely their fault. In fact the ‘fault’ is shared by us. Shoppers wanted a simplified process of buying but they also want cheap. Price has become a major driver. When you couple this with the growth of internet shopping you have a perfect storm.

I share Bill’s disdain for Portas. He suggests that the Portas Pilot towns are simply a waste of money. The horse has bolted springs to mind.

I have long since been of the view that there is a simple fact now – we have too many shops. The supply and demand equation is out of kilter. As some of the large retailers have slipped into administration the probability of re-letting those big boxes is slim at best. Pop Up shops only provide a short term answer.

We have to re-think our towns and cities. They have to offer something different. Intenet shopping won’t reduce – it is expected to grow to 15% of all sales in the space of two years. Look at this list of which retailers are now looking at the internet as an outlet. It’s no coincidence that it includes Marks and Spencer, Next, Argos and the like.

I have been thinking about what Bill has written for the last few days. If you run with his model and apply it to Nottingham specifically you need to take a very bold view. Tomorrows blog I think!

Retail Administration

There has been a lot in the press about retailers and the tough time they are having. I blogged about it here.


But I saw in the week a great quote – which perfectly fits the bill (forgive the pun in a moment)…

Lord Blackadder to Baldrick, “Oh God – bills, bills, bills …honestly Baldrick, sometimes I feel like a Pelican – whichever way I turn I’ve still got an enormous bill in front of me…“.

A sad but true reflection of a modern retailers life?

Whilst on that subject I can’t quite let Sir Terry Leahy’s comments on Desert Island Discs go. When asked whether the sight of boarded-up shops made him sad, he said: “It does but it is part of progress. People are not made to shop in supermarkets, they choose to shop there. High streets – some of them are medieval and the way that we live our lives now is very different, so what you have to do is make sure the benefits do outweigh the costs, and I think that they do.

The progress he describes might be the progress that Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons and the like make each day as they simply crush the opposition. The benefits are mostly to their shareholders?

He is right in one respect. People are fickle. They will say they object to the rise and rise of the supermarkets – but the reality is that those very same people will shop there – for convenience and price. No matter that the suppliers are beaten up and the big boys can afford to put an independent out of business? They sometimes behave like the school bully?

And if you wonder about the balance of power, according to the British Independent Retailers Association, 98% of the UK’s £150bn grocery sector is controlled by only nine chains…

The retail car crash

Comet didn’t see Christmas, Jessops did, but not much of the New year. This week HMV appointed Receivers. Our High Street is changing at an alarming rate. These three shops alone accounted for nearly 650 shops.

The logo of British music retail chain HMV is seen lit above its branch on Oxford Street in London

These shops are in an increasingly competitive marketplace and their demise has been blamed on ‘the property market’ and ‘the internet’.

The latter is perhaps the simplest to reconcile. Online shops for music and technology goods is fiercely fought. Often the overheads of these operators is minimal – perhaps some storage. Many shops could almost be run from a laptop. I know of a firm locally that does just that. The owner has a website, the stock is held in a warehouse and the orders are processed remotely. It’s a very streamlined operation. The costs are low and so the margin can be low too. The result – lower prices.

The property market is less easy to deal with though. I wasn’t sure that our industry came in for an easy ride. But is the criticism fair. Mary Portas said upward only rent reviews were a major problem. But the latest evidence says that the average lease length is now under 5 years. Rent reviews are fast disappearing with the shorter length of lease. Then there is the suggestion that landlords are holding out for uncompetitive rents. The imposition of Business Rates tends to bring letting at competitive rents! Further where a tenant is in place and can’t afford the rent, my experience is that most of our landlord clients will always talk to them. We have lots of arrangements in place for rent holidays, reductions and the like.

The harsh reality is that we have too many shops. We must find alternative uses. The property industry has, in my view, already adopted a flexible approach to lettings – it has had little choice!

But also consider Apple – who have an incredible on-line business – but also have shops in some of the most expensive places in the world – and yet sell more per square foot than almost any other retailer…


Who was to know that as this blog went to press there would be another announcement? Blockbuster imploded – with the potential loss of another 528 stores and 4,000 jobs….

By Tim Garratt Posted in Nottingham Tagged Blockbuster, Comet, HMV, Jessops, Jobs, LPA, Mary Portas, ,