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Could hyper-specialist shops save our high street?

August 13, 2019

The high street is in decline. Industries of all kind are moving their business online. Music and video were the first casualties as the likes of HMV and Blockbuster were replaced by iTunes and Netflix. But this trend has continued at alarming pace in recent years, with everything from banking to retail now online.

Retailers struggle as pressure mounts

The pressure on high street retailers is immense; they’re feeling the pinch while online retailers are cleaning up. And is it any surprise? Consumer spending power has been squeezed. The pound has plummeted since Brexit and wages are rising at a slower rate than inflation. Couple this with astronomical rent prices and rising employee hourly wage rates and it’s not difficult to see why moving online has become an attractive prospect.

When behemoth outfits like Amazon stock everything from tents to books at discount prices, how can high street retailers be expected to compete? The answer may lie in doing the complete opposite to what has proven so successful for Amazon. Instead of catering to everyone by stocking everything, stock one specialist item and stock a million varieties of it.

Hyper-specialist shops exist and they’re thriving

Like many things – transport, education, eating out – our mainland European cousins seem to have it figured out while we’re left floundering. Specialist shops are commonplace in Berlin and Madrid. Retailers sell one niche product and one niche product only. Whether it’s a shop entirely dedicated to ants or a paradise for button collectors, these stores work. Who better to buy a product off than someone who is utterly obsessed with it?

It’s true that hyper-specialist stores in Berlin may well be an accidental product of a turbulent past, but they could hold the key to the future of our high street? The Cold War meant that businesses with more than 10 employees were nationalised. The only way small retailers could thrive was to stock particular products that department stores didn’t. But the Cold War ended in 1991 and these shops are still going strong – so what does that tell you?

A hotel specifically for… plants?

Online plant retailer Patch announced last week that they would be opening a hotel for houseplants. Before you react incandescently and begin ranting about avocado-munching-millennials, take a step back and think. While it would be easy to mock this new venture there is obviously a market for it as houseplant ownership has skyrocketed in recent years. Moving away from all signing, all dancing department stores in favour of specific, more niche outfits may be the only way to preserve the high street as we know it.

This proposition would have been laughed out of Dragons’ Den four or five years ago. But, today’s retail climate has made it a viable business opportunity.

Increasingly, the physical stores that survive are those that provide a service. Think tattoo parlours, nail bars and hairdressers – they aren’t at risk from an online alternative. If we don’t want our high street to become an exclusively service-driven domain with no room to ‘mooch’, hyper-specialist shops may be the only solution. These shops offer so much more than the typical, retail interaction. They offer a unique experience that can’t be replicated online.

Are hyper-specialist shops a passing fad or do they genuinely hold the key to saving our beloved high street? Tweet us @otbtweeter with your thoughts and insights.


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