The chief executive of one of Newcastle’s best known companies has spoken of his confidence that the High Street will survive the combined onslaught from online shopping and Covid-19.
John Edgar, CEO of Fenwick, said the current struggles of the retail sector existed way before the coronavirus pandemic struck,
Now, as the firm makes preparations behind the scenes to reopen its portfolio of nine UK stores after the current national lockdown, Mr Edgar said the public’s affection for shopping trips will keep the high street alive.
He said that not all retailers wouldl survive, however, and only those offering great products and customer service will succeed.
“People love shopping, it’s as simple as that. People will always shop,” he said.
“The challenges of the High Street we are seeing today aren’t necessarily purely down to Covid. There were generally too many shops and online obviously became an added complication where we had too many shops.
“Covid just brings it into focus a lot faster. We’ve basically had five years of retail difficulties condensed into six months – or five weeks at one point.
“And so unfortunately there will be some people that disappear off the High Street and there will be some High Streets hit harder than others and that’s very unfortunate.
“Where you are able to provide a point of difference and great products and great service, which is what we strive to do and strive try to improve on, I think there is a place.
“People say department stores are over, but I don’t believe that at all. I think big spaces full of bland non-descript product are dead. Where you have a difference is where people want to shop.
“A department store 60 years ago is different to department stores today, that’s just natural evolution. But we still believe that the experience you can give customers, whether it’s through the food hall or the eateries or with the brands you can get from us that you can’t get anywhere else, and the service that’s what people want.”
Mr Edgar said Fenwick would announce investments into the business next year, but only when it has been able to see continuity of trade.
He added: “I’m as positive as I can be.
“I’m not saying things aren’t hard. Lockdown at this time of year for any retailer is pretty tough. We’ve got a very strong balance sheet even though we’ve had a difficult few years, we own most of our property and we’ve got a very supportive family. We are in a great place, compared to many retailers who might be full of debt and full of leases.”
Mr Edgar’s comments come as the Office for National Statistics said the volume of retail sales rose by 1.5% between August and September, continuing a recovery in consumer spending from the biggest slump on record during the first lockdown earlier this year.
But new figures from Springboard claim UK high street shopper numbers will plunge by more than 70% over the peak Christmas trading period as many turn to online stores instead, while the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said the second lockdown represents “a nightmare before Christmas”.
In England alone, Springboard expects that during the lockdown period itself – between November 5 and December 2 – high street footfall will be down by 87.3% on last year, and across all locations footfall will be down by 78.8%.
BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson also said the closure of non-essential shops was unnecessary, saying: “It will cause untold damage to the high street in the run up to Christmas, cost countless jobs, and permanently set back the recovery of the wider economy, with only a minimal effect on the transmission of the virus.”
* John Edgar interview, page 19