Editor’s weekly roundup: And the winner is….. Online retail

Photo shows: High street shopping, 1980s style.
1980s city centre

This week I can justifiably write on one of my favourite topics. Retail.

Because the overwhelming theme of the good news into our newsroom has been the success of online retailers over the last few months. While it doesn’t eclipse our reporting of tough times many businesses across all sectors are experiencing, it does offer respite from the gloom – and a glimpse of what tomorrow’s retail landscape will look like.

Record sales at Stratford-upon-Avon online retailer as shoppers abandon high street, was one story we reported yesterday. Sixty Stores Ltd is a multi-channel e-commerce retailer based in Stratford-upon-Avon, running sites including Sheds.co.uk, Minifridge.co.uk, Personalise.co.uk and Rattangardenfurniture.co.uk. The surge in demand for garden buildings, home offices, home gyms and garden makeovers saw the company record a huge 113 per cent increase in sales between March and June this year, reaching £15.3 million.

Nominet, the Oxford-headquartered tech company responsible for the  “.UK” domain, revealed new trends on how businesses across the country have  used the internet during lockdown.

Categorising new registrations by the words appearing in domain names indicated that registrations related to delivery services soared by 78 per cent compared to pre-lockdown.

We also reported that multi-channel cookware retailer ProCook has expanded its warehousing space in Gloucester. The business is expanding from its existing premises at St. Modwen’s fully let, neighbouring Gateway 12 business park, where ProCook also occupies a 43,000 sq ft unit.

ProcookLast year ProCook bought Steamer Trading out of administration. At the time the speciality kitchenware retailer had 38 stores across the UK. After six months of efforts in trying to revive the brand, ProCook revealed that it had no option but to close the brand and some of its stores, rebranding others to ProCook. The move has raised ProCook’s profile on the high street and broadened the scope of its reach from out-of-town outlets and leisure destinations to town centre locations. In addition to its bricks and mortar stores, the retailer has a successful eCommerce platform and growing international presence.

Also this week, UK food retailer Waitrose and the John Lewis Partnership announced plans to significantly increase the use of electric vans as visits to its website rocketed during the lockdown – a trend the company sees continuing.

Flipping the traditional retail model on its head, yesterday, in a letter to Partners the new CEO Sharon White said: “As customers increasingly shop online, we will become digital first.”  she said: “Shops will always be crucial to the brand but they will be in support of online.” She added: “Over the next five years we expect to rebalance our shop estate so that we have the right space in the right locations where people want to shop.” It’s been reported that the retailer is considering repurposing some of its stores into homes.

Redditch-based Lifestyle Appliances Ltd, one of the UK’s largest independent suppliers of outdoor leisure products, has also seen a surge in online sales during the recent lockdown period.

One of the major issues for online retailers who were enjoying modest success before the pandemic has been sizing up their e-commerce provision fast to deal with a huge increase in sales. Some online retailers have failed miserably – I waited weeks to have a delivery of plants and seeds delivered from an online garden retailer I’ve used before. To their credit, they kept me fully informed – but when you’re waiting for a delivery of seasonal plants, six weeks is a long time and meant I had to change my gardening plans (first world problems ….I know).

Nicky face masksSimilarly the usually brilliant Warwickshire-headquartered Holland & Barrett kept my husband waiting weeks for a delivery of nuts and dried fruits, but managed to deliver some very pongy, sea-weed face mask goop to me in a few days (and as I inadvertently pressed the “repeat delivery” button on their website, for three months I was receiving two packs of the stuff every couple of weeks until I managed to cancel it. I now have enough in the bathroom cupboard to last me a decade). Holland & Barrett might have been caught on the hop with their online service, but their customer services team were just lovely on the phone.

Helping Lifestyle Appliances Ltd adapt successfully to the increase in online has been Kidderminster-based OGL Computer. The company already used a range of Managed IT services from OGL, including IT Support, Office 365, Cloud Recovery and Proactive Administration, to manage business processes. But it was OGL Computer’s ERP software that helped Lifestyle Appliances manage the online spike in sales.

I also read that in the same week the UK government unveiled its new obesity strategy, designed to get the nation fit and healthy, Holland & Barrett has opened a new concept store in Chelmsford which aims to make wellness more accessible, so it seems that physical retail isn’t quite over yet.

And that brings me to the news that, while high streets might be ailing (and we all know the rot set in YEARS before Coronavirus, which has simply brought the issue to a head … again), out of town shopping, which includes retail parks and Outlet Centres, where there is more space and more parking, will become the retail choice for many.

Burford garden centreLast week, the day before facemasks in shops became compulsory, my husband and I visited Burford Garden Centre. A lot is written about the “retail experience” but if anyone wants a masterclass in how to do it, I urge you to visit Burford Garden Centre. They had clearly invested a lot of time and thought in how to adapt to the new restrictions and from the moment we were welcomed at the entrance with a bottle of sanitiser and a smile from the masked concierge, to the pop up coffee bar in the dahlia section – so that coffee and cake (an essential part of our visit, much like any trip to a National Trust property), could be had safety with social distancing, and we could wander around inside and out feeling normal …. almost.

The only other place you can do that is at a retail park.

I used to hate retail parks …. horrible places with no atmosphere, concrete and cars as far as the eye can see, no finesse, no elegance, no fun… but now? Now I would prefer to visit a retail park where I can scurry in and out of a large store quickly. So sad. But so necessary.

The opportunities offered by out-of-town shopping are obvious to Gloucestershire based developer Robert Hitchins. Today we report on proposals for Dobbies’ new flagship garden centre near Tewkesbury. The developer has submitted detailed design plans for Tewkesbury’s proposed designer outlet centre. Phase 1 of the new centre will provide 140,000 sq ft of retail space and a 70,000 sq ft garden centre with parking for 2,100 cars.

The reserved matters application submitted by Robert Hitchins Ltd provides detailed information for the Dobbies garden centre development, which will be the anchor for the site, including layout, landscaping and car parking in line with the outline planning permission already secured.

The new 75,000 sq ft garden centre with parking for 754 cars will be the largest Dobbies in South West England and the company’s fourth largest in the UK.

Designer Outlet Cotswolds 01The centre is located on Junction 9 of the M5 at Tewkesbury and next to the A46. To be called, Designer Outlet Cotswolds, it will serve a wide area given its ready accessibility which is further enhanced with its proximity to Ashchurch Railway Station on the Bristol to Birmingham mainline.

But coming back to my original point, this week we have to celebrate the success of online retailing. And while I’ve mentioned a number of successful UK online retailers, if you need no more confirmation that online retailing has just taken a massive step forward in adoption across the whole population, just look at the biggest daddy of them all. Amazon increased its revenues by 40 per cent in the second quarter during the coronavirus lockdown.

Sales rose from $63.4 billion to $88.9 billion between April and June, with net income doubling to $5.2 billion.