Guest Slot – Analysis Insider – Sarah Wilson

Cafe Lucca is a modern Italian restaurant serving tea, coffee, cakes, salads and light lunches, but its secret ingredient is a focus on odourless food.
Food at Cafe Lucca: Looking good without the smell.
The reason for this unusual slant is the location of the restaurant – slap bang in the middle of a lifestyle store, The Loft, in the city of Bath. It operates rather like a shopping mall with its 30,000 sq ft of trading space housing a variety of independent operators selling fashion, quality home-wares, along with an exhibition space and a florist in the front entrance.
The cafe is very much at the heart of the space but for it to work in a building where there are no walls dividing any of the operators the owners realised they had to re-write the rules and avoid food that created any strong smells that could offend some shoppers.
This highlights the attention to detail that is needed in today’s tough retail sector and it is indicative of how independent operators are rising to the challenge. The Loft has taken a large space that would have previously been taken by one of the big boys and they have made it very special.
It is one of a growing number of independent retail operators in Bath who suggest the pessimistic forecasts for the demise of the high street are slightly overdone. We’ve all seen the figures suggesting that by 2020 there will be more than 30% less shops and that retail sales from physical stores will have reduced by as much as 20%.
And Bath is no different from elsewhere in having plenty of empty units – vacated by the likes of Habitat, JJB and Jaeger. However, the reality is that even with over 40 shops shut in the city it is arguably a more interesting place to visit than before.
As a result the town is still busy and on a recent visit it felt like it was thriving. A key element of this must be the very early signs that the independents are beginning to potentially re-invent the high street.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Could this be the start of a period when independents come to the fore? Take Bath’s Topping Booksellers who have made its offer look so tempting with creative displays, knowledgeable employees and notably a stream of visiting authors. They’ve made book buying an experience. There are also a couple of pop-ups running over Christmas and again they’ve added some vibrancy.
What the independents are doing is simple – it’s offering something different. They are doing this because they can.  They are agile and unlike their big brothers they do not have any massive infrastructure to manage.
The big challenge for established retailers is to react to this fundamental re-adjustment in the way shoppers purchase goods. It is a reality that online is taking an increasing percentage of sales and it will potentially be the channel through which people buy ‘regular’ and commodity type items.
This means the high street has an enormous potential opportunity – to be the channel through which all other goods are sold. But this is only realistic if retailers are filling their shops with interesting things. The overall proposition and the goods on offer have to be new and interesting.
This is something that many independents have clearly grasped but this needs to filter through to the larger operators who have to step out of their present comfy confines if they are to re-position their businesses for survival and to also give the high street a bright future.
Among the solutions might be to unshackle themselves from their legacy brands. Take the example of Tesco that has set up a joint-venture coffee shop Harris + Hoole. There is no indication that these outlets are in any way related to the Tesco enterprise and it is run independently of the grocer.
It is a clever way for a big brand to grow its operations and to create a totally different experience. So let’s hope we see more of this sort of interesting experimentation that will help give shoppers even more reasons to visit the high street in the future.
Sponsored column by Sarah Wilson, retail specialist at consultancy Egremont Group