Mary Portas has been enlisted by the government to try and revitalize the high streets of the UK, according to a story on the BBC website today. Good headlines for the newspapers, but there is a limit to what a business coach can do, no matter how good they are.

I thoroughly enjoy what the Queen of Shops does – she gives no-nonsense advice and helps shopkeepers to look at customer service in a whole new light.  But there’s a bigger problem than simply customer service here, which nobody seems to want to admit.

An Evolution In Our Shopping Habits…

That problem is an evolutionary change in our habits, brought on by a combination of the continuing dominance of the supermarkets and the advance in Internet shopping.

As a teenager I used to love browsing in book shops and spent many hours tracking down old Genesis records for their prized B-sides in the second-hand record shops of the Midlands.  I now buy nearly all my books from and music from iTunes, along with anybody else who has moved with the times.

Mary Portas will undoubtedly identify a series of problems with many shops, plus some fundamental issues with town centres (lack of free parking is an issue when compared to the big supermarkets, as just one example).  She’ll tell shopkeepers to offer a special experience for customers, because these days it’s all about the experience.

Even Mary Portas Can’t Hold Back The Tide Of Change…

This is good, but it is not enough; there is a bigger reality happening – ignore it at your peril.  King Canute commanded the waves to hold back, but they still came crashing in to shore.

Nokia believed that they would hold onto their 50% share of the mobile phone market and that the iPhone was just a niche product.  They were terribly slow to react.  In April they announced a programme of 4,000 job cuts and a tie-in with Microsoft to try and recover.  They have a big, big problem, caused by trying to ignore radical, disruptive change in their marketplace.

The world changes fast.  You cannot afford to deny it.  I’m not a huge user of Twitter or Facebook but I don’t complain that they’re ruining our youth or communication, either.  If you are in business you must embrace change.

So here’s a few thoughts on developing your business in this technological world…

  1. Embrace Internet marketing and start to sell your products and services nationally.
    Ignore this at your peril.
  2. Develop a WOW Factor customer experience
    This will get your customers to tell their friends about you.
  3. Gradually Embrace Social Networking
    Twitter, Facebook & LinkedIn are part of modern life – they’ve supported revolution throughout the Middle East – but make sure you come to these after you’ve got your essential marketing plan in place.
  4. Build Relationships, Not Just Sales
    We can buy from Amazon in transactions – but as humans we are more loyal when we have a relationship that matters.  What are you doing for your customers to make you matter enough to them that they’ll want to keep coming back?
  5. Use Direct Response Techniques
    Database marketing is a must to both retain existing customers and to win new ones.  Capture details of every customer and keep in touch with them so that you have the chance to reach out to them again and again.

Many of my clients have used these precise strategies during the recession to produce astonishing results.

  • Travel agents/Tour operators Airworld Tours have doubled their sales;
  • Optician Richard Pakey sold more high quality glasses than in any previous year and became the UK’s number 1 independent retailer for leading brand Lindberg Glasses;
  • Virtual Business Source, through their new payroll services website have tripled their new business generation in a year by embracing the Internet.
  • The Crown at Mickleton, run by Andrew Rowbotham after he moved on from doubling sales at The Riverside Restaurant, using his marketing database to keep in touch with customers and remind them to come in for his tasty meals.
  • None of these businesses are naturally Internet based, yet all have achieved remarkable success through using it for lead generation and follow-up.

Mary Portas’ approach to revitalizing the high street is a sticking plaster strategy when surgery is required.  Definitely embrace everything she advises, because it’s right.

But you must also look to the future, rather than hanging onto the past.  Embrace the Internet and other approaches for marketing, or your business may be washed away forever.