The past few years have seen a change in the way the government has responded to the rise of the car culture and growth of out-of-town superstores. Like other independent traders, small dealers have been hit as high streets and town centres have been turned into wastelands. During the 80s and early 90s, planning applications were granted for out-of-town retail parks like there was no tomorrow. But tomorrow finally came and small traders suffered.
Now the government has tightened planning restrictions on out-of-town developments (see box) and says developers should examine in-town options first before allowing any more developments geared to the car culture.
'We are lobbying the Department of the Environment (DoE) to cut down on the number of out-of-town sites being developed,' says Stephen Alambritis, a representative of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) which, represents 90,000 small traders.
Alambritis says FSB members are concerned that town centres will follow the US example and become no-go areas as trade moves to out-of-town sites and punters continue to shop by car. What is needed, he says, is the regeneration of high streets and town centres.
'There have been changes to the planning guidelines, but there are still about 200 superstore schemes in the pipeline under the old planning regime.' Critics of the out-of-town developments say the DoE changes are 'too little, too late'.
The first tentative stirrings of a high street renaissance are emerging, although it has come too late for many small dealers and independent retailers.
Pilot loyalty schemes are being introduced in town centres across the country in a bid to hold on to local customers.
According to Alambritis, loyalty schemes and other small trader initiatives have the advantage of bringing independent retailers together with a common cause - in the past small retailers tended to view each other with suspicion.
'Small retailers should discuss things like what leases they have and what rents they pay,' says Alambritis. 'They must stand together or they will fall together.' The biggest change that would help small retailers, he says, is a change in car parking rates in town centres.
'Local councils see high street parking as a cash-cow and charge high rates. This puts shoppers off, so they shop where the parking is free.
The Labour party is considering proposals to make superstores pay for parking (see box).
Dealers agree. Dave Baker who runs Southend-on-Sea dealer Estuary PC, says his business has been hit since the launch of the nearby Lakeside shopping centre at Thurrock - the largest out-of-town site in the south of England. 'We can't compete on price with mail-order companies and superstores, but we can compete on support.'
He says much of Estuary's business comes from supporting and advising on PCs that have been bought from large stores like Dixons-owned PC World at Lakeside.
'Our Saturday business has dropped dramatically since Lakeside opened,' says Baker. 'People used to come to Southend for the day to shop, now they go to Lakeside.'
The key to winning back these shoppers is to give them free parking.
'It's ironic that people are prepared to drive 20 miles to get free parking.
If the council allowed free Saturday parking it would increase our business.' Among the loyalty schemes being piloted is one where shops refund customer parking costs if they spend over a certain amount.
The market has grown since the launch of the first PC superstore in Croydon, PC World, which opened in late 1991. Byte, part of the SCH Group, saw a 1995 turnover of #52.4 million. Earlier this year it opened a further 46 concessions in branches of Office World.
Superstores are the fastest growing part of the retail PC channel. According to the 1996 Banner Survey into PC buying, superstores increased their percentage of software sales to large companies (50-plus staff) from six per cent in 1995 to 17 per cent in 1996. This is significant because that market was traditionally the dealer's domain and, more importantly, represents reasonable margins.
The Banner figures are an indication that the move by Byte to target business users has paid off. The move towards PC superstores mirrors those in other retail sectors.
Research by retail consultants Verdict reveals that superstores have increased their share of total retail space from 12.8 per cent to 23 per cent in the past 10 years.
Byte representative Steve Rigby says that despite the change in DoE guidelines, out-of-town developments are still the way forward. 'There are still sites available and extensions to existing sites.' But getting good out-of-town sites for a retailer is not easy either. The company originally planned to open six dedicated stores this year - it currently has 11 alongside its Office World concessions - but has put its plans on hold. It hopes to open several more sites before March 97. 'It can take years to find a good site, we're desperately looking for good sites,' Rigby says.
Byte needs to keep opening stores to keep its momentum going, but the company knows it cannot afford to make mistakes when it comes to choosing locations. Rigby believes locations which are closest to large population centres tend to do best. 'There are areas that don't do well because they lack large numbers of affluent customers,' he says. Rigby believes the only way Byte can ensure it is a truly national retailer is by having stores across the country.
In a bid to tackle the superstore phenomenon, the biggest weapon that high streets and town centres have is customer loyalty which they are trying to exploit by issuing loyalty cards. An unlikely setting of this retail phenomenon is the small Herefordshire town of Leominster. Penny Langford, representative of the district council, says the loyalty scheme, involving about half of the town's 200-odd traders, was set up to save the town centre from decline.
'It's not just the superstores that have caused problems,' she says.
'There is a lack of parking facilities, a change in shopping patterns, high rents and long leases that small traders signed during the 80s boom and now can't get out of.' Business rates too are disproportionately higher for small businesses.
The Loyal to Leominster scheme involves traders issuing cards to customers that give discounts for repeat shopping. The discounts vary across shops and cannot be used in other establishments, but Langford says the scheme is still in its early stages.
'The ultimate aim would be to issue a swipe card to customers like the supermarkets have,' she says. This would give retailers important customer information about shopping habits which they could use to offer a better service.
But there are problems for small retailers that supermarkets do not have when they issue cards - can the retailers afford the cost of the cards, the cost of the readers and would they want other retailers to know what their turnover is? Despite its limitations, the Leominster scheme has caused a great deal of interest among other high streets.
Another problem for high street dealers is that margins are often too tight to offer any kind of discount to local shoppers. Justin Bolton, a retail manager at BWCL - one of Leominster high street's two dealers - says the company supports the loyalty scheme in principle, but has not joined because it did not feel that it would bring any benefit.
Bolton says his dealership cannot afford to give those kinds of discounts.
'Some traders can offer 10 per discounts, but we don't make that on a PC.' Bolton says high street dealers really need improved support from the manufacturers. 'We sell PCs to people that require good local support.
What we need from manufacturers are support phone lines that are not constantly engaged.'
Another loyalty scheme has been developed in Dunstable, Bedfordshire.
Although only launched at the beginning of October, town centre manager Paul Smith has already signed about a third of Dunstable's high street businesses to join the scheme.
As with Leominster, local shoppers are issued with a card that gets them points when they shop locally and gives them free entry to a monthly chamber of commerce draw that gives vouchers from local retailers as the prize.
Smith says the plight of high streets has belatedly become a political issue, but that loyalty schemes need to develop from the current piecemeal system of dumb cards to a more coherent system of smart cards that give users, for example, parking meter credits if they shop locally. The problem is that the cost of these smart card schemes would be such that they would have to be done on a large scale to be cost-effective, and under the jurisdiction of a co-ordinating body.
PC superstores are not entirely bad news for dealers. They have expanded the market for PCs and have made many neophytes aware of the wide choice of product available. Les Robinson, director of Bristol dealer Personic, says local business customers tend to look into the local PC World superstore to see what products are available and to get an idea on pricing.
But they still come to dealers for advice on how systems will run with their business.
But high street dealers are suffering along with other small traders as town centres generally are sucked dry by out-of-town developments.
The Death of the High Street, a survey by research firm Mintel, highlights the paradox.
Customers who own cars are often among those most concerned about the demise of the high street and the knock-on effect of the destruction of local communities. Ironically, those customers are also most likely to take advantage of the convenience, cleanliness and free parking of superstores.
Dealers, like other small traders, need to lure those wavering customers with a personalised service, based on knowledge and support - and which rewards loyalty.
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