‘Customer whisperer’ Kate Hardcastle says retail is in her blood – and she has strong views on how high streets can withstand the digital revolution. Tom Richmond reports.
KATE HARDCASTLE can remember the precise moment when she became fascinated by shopping – and customer service.
She was talking to her paternal grandparents who worked in the then Brown Muff department store in Bradford city centre.
They recalled how they sold some of the first colour televisions just in time for football’s World Cup in 1966 when Sir Alf Ramsey’s working class heroes made history.
Yet they went further. They also helped wire the plugs for those customers unfamiliar with new TV technology because they believed in providing the best service possible.
“My fascination with the consumer began then,” says Huddersfield-born Hardcastle whose maternal grandparents ran a corner shop in Elland. “It’s become an obsession but it is a healthy obsession. Retail is in my bloodline.”
And it is not stopped. Today the proud Yorkshirewoman, self-made entrepreneur and self-styled ‘Customer Whisperer’ is one of Britain’s foremost consumer champions.
Founder of the Insight with Passion business transformation consultancy nearly a decade ago, she is now so recognisable that our engaging conversation in the Harvey Nichols coffee shop in Leeds is interrupted by shoppers wanting retail tips of their own.
She is shown a clove-smelling scented candle that a woman is trying to market. “Good for you,” says Hardcastle. “Are you on social media? I’ll have a look.”
And she means it. Businesses, and particularly retailers, will only thrive if they market and promote themselves, she says, and here the internet can be an asset.
Nearly 90,000 jobs have been lost across the retail sector this year as stores close. Christmas, she fears, will bring more casualties as business rates – and crippling rents – take their toll.
Yet, while retail tycoon Mike Ashley was, on the day of our conversation, in Parliament demanding action to save the high street, Hardcastle saw the light 15 years ago when she was warning that shops would have to move with the times – and respond to changing customer behaviour before online shopping took such a hold.
And the lighting analogy is a particularly apt when she warms to her theme and discusses the proliferation of empty shops in communities.
She likens longer-term regeneration plans – like the provision of more childcare, accessible GP surgeries and, yes, housing – to ‘candelabras’ as policy-making evolves over the next decade or so.
However, after a lifetime studying obsessing over behavioural trends, she knows customers will start to shun such areas unless there are ‘tealights’ to give shoppers hope in the meantime.
“If you don’t do something with ‘tealights’, you will divert footfall away because you are giving consumers nothing and they see no future,” she tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview to support the Love Your High Street campaign being spearheaded by this newspaper.
“If you have a behaviour change, it’s incredibly difficult to rip it up. You have to give the public something now as well as a longer term plan. Telling the story of your longer-term plan is a really good way to start. You can’t complete it all behind closed doors.”
The last comment is particularly aimed at those local authority executives who have responsibility for town centre planning. This no nonsense mother-of-three – awarded a MBE this summer – bemoans the culture of secrecy which keeps consumers in the dark. They need to know, she says.
As well as using empty shops to promote plans, she would like to see some vacant buildings converted into meeting places – or tea rooms – to help support national initiatives to combat loneliness.
High streets, she implores, should be about bringing people together and she singles out Malton which has developed a successful niche as a thriving food town.
Others, she says, can – and should – do likewise. She uses art as an example. “It’s about finding your identity,” says Hardcastle whose business devotes one day a week to helping small businesses through Welcome to Yorkshire.
“In America and Australia, there’s no embarrassment about trying things. You have to have your purpose and make it rock every day. If you want to do something with art, you can’t just have a display for three weeks. You’re just repeating, repeating, repeating what other people do. You’ve got to live and breathe it, and have it all round the year. It’s about building an identity.”
However this retail guru does have considerable sympathy for those council chiefs who are responsible for developing bespoke plans. She is the first to realise that they don’t have sufficient resources to invest in the transformation of town centres because they’re struggling to fund schools, social care and other key services.
That, she says, should not absolve the Government despite Chancellor Philip Hammond making £1.5bn available in the last Budget to offset business rates and help fund some high street improvements.
As part of Hardcastle’s recent Tonight documentary for ITV, she met Jake Berry, the supposed Minister for the High Street. It is clear she was unimpressed then – and she’s even more unimpressed now after his ideas, and thinking, appeared limited to a new set of awards for high streets “which don’t tackle any of the policy challenges”.
He just didn’t get it, she bemoaned, and questioned how someone could fulfil this remit when they’re also supposed to be the Northern Powerhouse Minister, another equally important role.
“Local authorities are dealing with so much and with so much less,” she says. “They have more problems than ever, more pressures than ever and more restrictions on budget than ever. It just feels like ‘pass the parcel’. It just feels like we have created a tier of noise so the Government can try to say ‘High Street. Problem solved’. It’s not.”
Even in a coffee shop, or on holiday with her family, she’s observing people – whether it be how long it takes to be asked for a refill or the brands on shopping bags. It’s all, she says, about building knowledge and insight.
She’s currently helping a traditional school uniform provider reinvent itself by including anti-bullying messages on the inner lining of clothing to compete against cheaper ranges offered by supermarkets for example.
She will return to Australia in the New Year to work on high-profile projects, but she does so confident that the British high street can survive – and thrive – if a premium is placed on the type of service that customers want and that they are given good enough reasons to shop locally.
Just as Kate Hardcastle’s grandparents did five decades ago.
Tackling parking charge woes
Retail guru Kate Hardcastle has sympathy for those who bemoan those towns which charge exorbitant parking charges.
However she’s also realistic and recognises that “carte blanche free parking” will be abused by non-shoppers,
She suggests free parking for the first half an hour – and then charging motorists a small sum if they want to stay for an hour.
Those who want to stay longer should pay more, says Hardcastle, but she does believe councils should be quicker to respond to their communities when they raise issues like parking.
“If it’s annoying people and getting under their skin, that is the time when you’ve got to do something,” she adds.