Meet the IPM: Interview with Phil Smith

Phil SmithPhil, a Fellow of the Institute of Place Management, is a senior executive and non-executive director within consumer focussed environments. He has a strong commercial and business development background across a diverse retail sector portfolio that is connected by his passion for consumer engagement and building communities on the high street. He possesses the business acumen and gravitas of an exceptional brand ambassador who, effectively and skilfully, collaborates across stakeholders. Phil started his retail career at an independent Liverpool department store, before progressing to Managing Director level at international businesses serving SMEs, and is aware of digitalization and personalization in retailing today. He gained an MBA in retail at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling and has been awarded the honorary title of Visiting Research Fellow by the University of Chester for his contribution on retail and business agendas. Phil is at the final stage of completing the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) programme at Chester Business School. He is the retail sector specialist on the board of Cheshire West & North Wales Chamber of Commerce.

Phil Smith, you consult SME retailers and associated service providers. What exactly do you do? How do you help them?

Phil Smith: I bring over 35 years of retail related business experience to their door and become a sounding board on a myriad of business issues. Smaller business owners often need an impartial but sector experienced person to provide a health check on their business and support them in developing business development ideas. I have found that it is important to structure these sessions but not over complicate with a potentially distracting formulaic approach, so we start the review by drafting a simple analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) together, setting a good base to focus and prioritise our discussion and agreed actions.

“All too often individual traders operate in isolation within their trading place rather than collaborating as a community for everyone.”

When working with high street retailers, whether smaller shops or larger stores, one of the first and most important tasks is a ‘walk and talk’ around the immediate external trading environment (place) and back into the business with a critical outside-inside operational inspection. All too often individual traders operate in isolation within their trading place rather than collaborating as a community for everyone. While working within a town, I’ve linked neighbouring business owners together; a jeweller making wedding rings, a celebration cake maker, a gift shop owner. I also advise these bricks and mortar businesses on why and how to improve their online presence, website and social media activity, to draw shoppers to the individual shop and place. SME retailers welcome the advice and guidance of highly experienced retail practitioners and the service providers that I have worked with benefit from first-hand experience of the needs and wants of their target audience.

You recently led the retail mentoring programme for the ‘Thriving High Street’ campaign in Wales. What was this about?

Phil Smith: The National Skills Academy for Retail (NSAR) received funding from Welsh Government’s sector priority fund pilot for the Thriving High Street Campaign. The campaign offered a package of business support and training to help town centres to become more successful and sustainable. I was delighted to be asked to lead the retail business mentoring aspect of the programme. Working with NSAR and Grey4Gold, I recruited a team of exceptionally experienced retail professionals to deliver the mentoring sessions. The support consisted of two half-day visits when the nominated retail specialist provided a fresh pair of eyes to enable the retailer to take stock and improve. Whilst managing the mentoring activity and speaking at high street community meetings across Wales, I also found myself delivering mentoring sessions with retailers in Prestatyn, Denbigh and Anglesey and very much enjoyed working directly with the retailers on high street and rural locations. The outcome of the mentoring was independently validated as a great success, delivered to over 100 businesses ranging from a chocolate shop in Bridgend, a photo studio in Prestatyn, a lighting company in Swansea, ladies fashion in Carmarthen and a pet shop in Wrexham. There was a marked improvement in almost all of the businesses.

“A lack of cohesion among businesses of all sizes and other stakeholders has partly caused the demise of previously thriving high streets.”

What do you think are some of the most important challenges for SME retailers today?

Phil Smith: The SME classification itself is too broad, a small independent business has limited resource, often time-poor to look outside the retail outlet and engage with the community in the trading location than a more resourced medium size business. A lack of cohesion among businesses of all sizes and other stakeholders has partly caused the demise of previously thriving high streets. Many town centres are forgotten places left behind by the consumer in favour of more modern shopping environments on the edge of towns. SME retailers need to embrace contemporary trading and the social networking activities that the consumer expects. In part this is the result of a knowledge disconnect among the smaller independents in particular. They need to understand why and how technology can help them in a wider business context. The right product and pricing strategy are a given for survival – service is the differentiator; which reinforces the need for retailers, especially SMEs, to work together and collaborate with other place stakeholders in setting a high standard of service attractiveness.

How do you see the future of retailing in towns around the UK?

Phil Smith: Our town centres continue to evolve, needing to return to a more balanced mix of living, social and shopping place. The increased mobility of the consumer allowed them to move further away from their local community shopping destination for bulk purchases and a bulk supermarket shop – that’s unlikely to significantly change apart from the influence of online delivered shopping. When the community is engaged on the high street the difference is immense – as I witnessed on an impromptu visit to Barnoldswick one August. The town centre was alive with street activities organised by the local council and traders working together on their month long community event. The development of business improvement districts (BID) has seen some success in addressing and developing wider engagement within towns when members are at the centre of activity. The renewed towns of the future will include independent retailers that offer multiple consumer connectivity with service excellence. Equally the external facades of the premises need to reflect the same high standard. Gone are the days of owner lifestyle opening hours, still seen on many high streets today.

Our town centres continue to evolve, needing to return to a more balanced mix of living, social and shopping place.

Phil Smith, you are a fellow of the Institute of Place Management. How do you think that the Institute can assist you in your own work?

Phil Smith: Over more recent years I have been able to take a more holistic view of trading on the high street; now backed up with first-hand experience of working with many SME retailers in towns and cities. I was delighted to be asked to participate in a few HSUK 2020 workshops at MMU, further developing my awareness of the town manager and stakeholders in the high street regeneration mix. I would hope to share my doctoral research on the use of social media in a retail context with members and collaborate on the impact of the findings on place. As a retail practitioner-academic taking a greater interest in place management, access to the Journal of Place Management and Development is helpful.

The interview was conducted by Ares Kalandides.

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