It is rare that a day goes by without hearing about a struggling retailer. 2012 is barely a month old but already high street chains HMV, Peacocks and Blacks Leisure, to name but three, have endured miserable starts to the year. So against this grim backdrop, how can ailing retailers turn things around and ensure they are still here this time next year?
We put that question to Wayne Hemingway, the renowned designer who built iconic clothing label Red or Dead from a humble Camden market stall. This is a man who has been commissioned to design uniforms for McDonald’s and who started his own festival, Vintage, so he could design “the dream high street”.
Unsurprisingly, Hemingway tells us that retailers need to reinvent themselves.
But he also believes they need more help from councils and town planners in order to thrive.
“For me going into town has always been much more than just going in to shop,” Hemingway says. “I think a lot of town planners and developers thought that the most exciting thing that a human being wanted to do was shop and so they designed the same shops in every single town. Well that’s proved not to be the case now. And we’ve just lost so much.
“I remember growing up in Blackburn and going into the town centre where there were lots and lots of independents as well as the chains. But then staying in town. Staying in town to go to the cinema and go to the nightclubs.
"The town that I live in now, Chichester, has built the entertainment area outside the town centre. Well how daft is that? Why would you build these cinemas and nightclubs away from the very centre of the town? At the end of the day you have got to have intelligent planning.
“Planners need to understand what makes successful places. Not just planners but also the councillors and elected officers of councils – sometimes I don’t think they travel enough, research enough, to know what a successful place is.
“Each and every town and city has to have visionary people at its helm. Have we got that? In every town is there a visionary at the helm? No there isn’t.” Hemingway laments that “most high streets have become gentrified” and are now “owned by pension funds”.
He says this makes it nigh on impossible for innovative retailers to establish themselves on UK high streets and enjoy the same success he and his wife Geraldine had when starting Red or Dead on market stalls in the 1980s.
“Places like Kensington Market are now PC Worlds. Those places are gone for young people to be able to start-up in.
“We were two working class kids who’d come down from up north. We managed to do it without any money or any borrowings because our first rent on Camden was £6. And we were able to open a shop on Kensington High Street, which was part of Kensington Market, for £18 a week. We were able to have a go without any help from anybody.
“It’s a lot harder today, there’s no doubt about that. Something has to give really. There has to be something that allows more businesses to have a go.”
While Hemingway would like councils to make life easier, he believes established retailers also need to help themselves in order to entice shoppers to part with their cash.
“Retailers, if they’re not doing very well, have got to come up with trump cards and start to become more experiential,” he says.
“Certain retailers are doing that very well. You go into some stores now, fashion stores, and as well as being able to try on the clothes you can get your hair and make up done, eat well designed food and there’s DJ playing.”
As a fashion designer, it comes as no surprise to hear that Hemingway admires high-end boutiques such as Dover Street Market and Start London. But it raises an eyebrow to hear him praise Topshop for “ensuring their stores feel constantly fresh and uplifting” by regularly changing their stock, and McDonald’s because “they’ve changed, and they keep changing”. Change, Hemingway argues, is a word retailers need to have in their vocabulary in order to survive. “Things have to change. When things don’t work, human beings are brilliant at finding solutions. As human beings we like to be stimulated and we like newness or else we get bored.”
But what happens if things don’t change? Could the end be in sight for the high street as we know it? “If it doesn’t, towns can end up becoming very undesirable places to live, unless they’ve got a thriving beating heart, they’ll become ghost towns.
“But I don’t think we’re all gonna sit at home and order everything on our computers. [As a retailer] you can do it on the internet now but that’s not the same as seeing the whites of a customer’s eyes and understanding whether what you are doing is good or average or brilliant.
“I think town centres will evolve to become places where we go to get out of our house and to see people. Retail will always be part of that, it will just have to evolve as well.”