Focus on retail – the highs and lows on the UK high street

Practice owner Judy Lea ponders on the increasing noise about the struggling UK high street versus retail parks and shopping centres and if optics needs passing footfall.

“It’s not a new topic, but the press coverage about reduced footfall to the high street seems to have reached fever pitch of late – with the latest news being that hundreds of pizza restaurants and toy retailers closing branches and weather related drops in revenue. The concern seems to be that during inclement weather, the British public now favour modern covered shopping centres where they are protected from the elements. Rarely a day goes by without news of an impending store or bank closure or a national chain going into administration. We are told that we all prefer to shop and bank online nowadays, removing the need for high street premises. I may be in the minority, (and may be getting old!), but I have to say that I still prefer the human interaction and being able to see what I am about to buy. Although I bank online and do the occasional internet shop, I’ve had many occasions where I’ve ended up with four bags of potatoes instead of four potatoes when I haven’t read the descriptions properly! This recent press coverage about reduced footfall to the traditional high street has got me thinking: do we need footfall in optics? Our practice is based in a town with very few shops nowadays. We have thankfully survived the closing of the large Woolworths next door, followed by the Ethel Austin, and more recently Burtons and Dorothy Perkins. Even the job centre has relocated, leaving us surrounded by empty retail units interspersed with the occasional charity shop at our end of the town. There is a new retail park on the outskirts of the town, which attracts the majority of footfall and traffic, leaving the town centre like a ghost town. The question is regularly raised as to whether a move would benefit our trade, however I’m dubious. The advantages that we have in our location are many. Our rent is low, colleagues can park locally with no charge and residents are so pleased to have a thriving business in the town that they want to support us and even watch over our cars during the working day. For patients wanting to come and see us there is no difficulty with parking and they don’t have to walk long distances from their car. There is no real local rush hour either for the commute to and from work. There is certainly a great sense of community in such towns as it is much more personal rather than being in an area with busy footfall where people will rarely be the same every day. However, we have had to work hard at making sure that patients know that we are there. In optics it is easier to build loyalty with our patients, as opposed to in ‘normal retail’ and over the years we have developed ways of addressing the lack of passing trade. We have been involved in community events such as local Christmas light switch-ons, fund-raising activities, sponsorship of schools and sports teams. We get involved with local schools and colleges to raise awareness of optometry as a career choice and recently supported the Specsavers stand at the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham, promoting optometry and audiology to thousands of school children. Through my links with working at the local hospital we have built good relationships with the local ophthalmologists and GPs. I have always felt strongly about being involved in local shared care schemes. Often these patients then become aware of our location and the scope of what we can actually do for them, previously thinking that we would just be ‘wanting to sell them a pair of spectacles’. I am grateful to have such loyal, good and eager professional and support colleagues who work together to give the best experience in care for the patients. By giving the patient the best possible experience and listening to what they are telling us and providing solutions to their concerns, we build loyalty by word of mouth and we certainly now have patients who make 15-mile trips to still come to us and those who have brought entire families to see us. I always remember being told shortly after I qualified that a bad reputation spreads overnight while a good reputation takes longer and required more effort but if you are prepared to put in the effort over the years you start to reap the rewards. This is one of the truest things over my years in practice. Maybe having to work a little harder to build awareness of where we are and grow our reputation has made us a better practice in the long run as a result.”

This article first appeared in Optician

Judy Lea is optometrist director of Specsavers Longton.

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