Exclusive research: Are consumers retail's biggest fans?
The retail industry needs to do a better job of getting its message across and pleasing shoppers. Those are the conclusions that have to be drawn from a consumer study of attitudes towards the sector, commissioned from ICM by Retail Week as part of our Backing UK Retail campaign. Although there is welcome evidence that retail's importance is widely appreciated, the industry as a whole is falling at some key hurdles.
Retailers' contribution to the economy
Consumers are in no doubt about retailers' importance to the economy. More than two thirds (64 per cent) strongly agreed or tended to agree that "retailers make a valuable contribution to the UK economy as a whole". Only 5 per cent disagreed.
Verdict: The stores sector is acknowledged as a key component of the economy. Retail's role is understood and respected.
Contribution to local communities
Whether it is support for local schools, charitable fundraising or other good works, people recognise that retailers benefit the neighbourhoods they trade in.
14 per cent of those polled thought retailers make a "very valuable" contribution and another 49 per cent thought their contribution was "quite valuable", giving a net 63 per cent (see chart).
Verdict: People appreciate the efforts made by retailers to make a positive impact on the communities in which they operate.
Helping consumers in the downturn
Retailers will be frustrated with consumers' response on this subject.
Despite what was probably the most promotional Christmas in memory, the everyday low prices strategy adopted by some big store groups and price deflation in many categories, shoppers apparently feel little gratitude for stores' efforts.
Asked to what extent, if at all, retailers are offering better value for money to help customers through the downturn, only 11 per cent said "a lot" (see chart) and a quarter thought retailers have not helped much at all.
"If I was a retailer and looked at that figure, I'd have to be disappointed. Given steep levels of discounting, I'd have thought it might have been a bit higher," says ICM Research director Steve Parker.
However, the face-value finding may mask a more complex psychological dynamic. The fact that the poll was conducted as consumers feel under financial pressure and insecure about the economic outlook may have prompted a particularly critical response.
Parker says: "It may just reflect people's general anxiety and be a sign of the times. At a different time, attitudes might have been more positive."
Verdict: Despite their short- and long-term price-cutting, retailers cannot afford to rest on their laurels. As long as the downturn lasts, consumers are likely to seek ever greater value and remain harsh judges.
Retail's importance in job creation
Retailers can be pleased with the high recognition of the sector's role in providing employment.
Although the industry accounts for 11 per cent of this country's workforce, there has frequently been unfair characterisation of many retail posts as "McJobs". However, the results show that people acknowledge stores' vital status as employers. Three quarters of those surveyed agreed that retailers make a contribution to society as creators of jobs and only 3 per cent disagreed.
Verdict: Retailers have done a good job of communicating their crucial status as employers. High-profile retail job losses, such as those following the administrations of Woolworths and others, are likely to be a salutary reminder of the sector's importance and play a part in debates over how to ensure the industry's continued health.
Appeal of the high street
By a majority of more than two to one, consumers think that their local high streets and shopping centres have become worse places to shop over the past 10 years (see chart).
A fifth think their local shopping destinations are "nowhere near as good" as they used to be, compared with less than a 10th who believe they are "much better".
It appears that many consumers are inclined to agree with proponents of the "clone town Britain" view, who argue that local distinctiveness has been lost and the UK's high streets have become identikit trading pitches for a small number of big multiples.
But the finding has to be tempered by the fact that views were being passed on local retailing centres in their entirety. Shoppers' memories of one particular and well loved store that has disappeared can colour attitudes, despite that fact that they are choosing to spend in chains.
Verdict: Multiple retailers need to do more to demonstrate how they enhance the appeal of the high street.
Enjoyment of shopping
The view that shopping is a national pastime got some support in the survey – especially among retail's critically important female constituency.
While, perhaps unsurprisingly, only 5 per cent of men said they "love" shopping, the proportion rose to 19 per cent among women, giving an overall total of 13 per cent. Among women aged under 35, those who love shopping increased to 27 per cent.
The latter category is important because younger consumers have so far proved the most reluctant to stop shopping as the credit crunch takes its toll; this shows their support is not wavering.
Verdict: This is especially good news for retailers such as Asos and New Look, which appeal to youthful shoppers. It is also a fillip for retailers more generally, showing that a day's shopping remains a treat for a sizeable proportion of consumers.
Fair trade and environmentally responsible retailing have rocketed up the retail agenda in the past few years, whether it is the ambitious programmes of Wal-Mart or Marks & Spencer, or the opprobrium heaped on Primark for its perceived failures.
On the whole, retailers have much more to do if they want to convince shoppers that they take ecological and ethical matters seriously.
Of those surveyed, 22 per cent do not really think retailers are doing their bit at all, hugely outweighing the 14 per cent who believe stores are "wholly or mostly" shouldering their responsibilities.
Verdict: Despite many high-profile initiatives by retailers, shoppers have yet to recognise the extent to which the industry is changing. Stores need to more effectively communicate the measures they are taking.
Mass-availability of traditionally exclusive products
John Prescott once famously said that everyone is now middle class and used the example of widespread champagne consumption to illustrate his point.
A healthy proportion of shoppers would certainly agree that retailers have done a good job of making many once exclusive products – whether it be champagne or cashmere – accessible to ordinary people and not just the rich.
41 per cent of those polled strongly agreed or tended to agree that retailers have made such items more widely available and affordable – testament to the industry's beneficial effects. Only 14 per cent of people took the opposing view.
"Not a bad result," says Parker. "It's acknowledgment that retailers have brought us things we wouldn't otherwise have been able to afford."
Verdict: Retailers are recognised for improving life through the democratisation of products once the preserve of a privileged few.
Despite retailers' efforts to demonstrate that they value their customers, a worrying proportion of shoppers (45 per cent) feel taken for granted.
Only 16 per cent believe their custom is valued a lot, and 31 per cent a little. 5 per cent think retailers give the impression that their custom is not valued at all.
There are probably a couple of mitigating factors. First, the survey was conducted just after the busiest trading period of the year, when stores and staff are under the greatest pressure and standards can slip. Experience can also be coloured by a particularly annoying experience in a single store.
Second, the way in which shoppers feel they are treated is likely to be prominent in their minds when they are thinking much more carefully about whether to spend at all. At such times they are more likely to bridle at perceived slights that might go unnoticed in happier days.
Parker says: "Half the population is not getting the message that they're important to retailers. Clearly, there has to be an opportunity there."
Verdict: Retailers could do better. During the downturn how shoppers feel about their treatment by particular retailers can make or break a sale as never before.
More than a third of consumers have noticed no difference in service over the past three to five years and a net majority think it has got worse rather than better – 34 per cent versus 28 per cent.
Perceptions of service are likely to dovetail with how valued shoppers feel, and feelings are clearly mixed (see chart). As Parker says: "People who think they're not appreciated are also the ones who have the most negative impression about service."
Once again, although the question was asked about retail as a whole, responses are likely to have been coloured by individual experiences and comparisons between quite different shops.
Parker observes: "You'd give a different response if, for instance, you were thinking about a local fishing tackle store or a Currys on a busy Saturday afternoon."
Verdict: Few would dispute that individual retailers have made great strides, but the retail sector as a whole still has more work to do.