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Shopkeepers on wheels

It hasn’t been easy for any of us over the last few years. Potential customers are still there, but they are spread across a range of competing transport providers. They always were, of course, but we’re so heavily outnumbered by private hire that it feels like we are losing ground. We just need to try to tempt a bigger chunk of custom over to our side. This is easier said than done, I know.

Private hire isn’t having it all its own way though. The biggest threat to traditional minicab companies is Uber. The taxi trade is also threatened by Uber, but to a lesser extent. The strange thing is that Uber’s own future is uncertain. While it’s been crawling to TfL in an effort to get its licence back, it has been denied new licences in York and Brighton, and it has been made unwelcome in various other cities around the world. London is the accepted transport honey pot though, the big prize. Regulations are slack on the private hire side, but taxi licensing requirements in London are still incredibly stringent, making the licence the hardest to get in the world – as we all know.

Provincial licensing authorities look to London to see how TfL reacts to Uber. Emboldened by TfL’s refusal to re-licence Uber, other cities now have the confidence to do what is right and stop this menace in its tracks. It’s scandalous that Uber is still allowed to operate despite having been declared unfit in the city – though it may to stop if it loses its appeal against TfL’s decison later this month. Not only that, but it still has the appeal against the employment tribunal ruling that its drivers were workers and should have rights as such, and are not self-employed.

Even if Uber is relicensed, either in London or elsewhere, it could have to make changes to its business model which could see it become unsustainable.

Workers in any industry assume the customers will always be there, but sometimes they’re not. Look at retail: Woolworths, BHS, and C&A disappeared from British high streets years ago, and other long-established retailers are struggling. At the time of writing, Mothercare and Marks and Spencer are both in trouble for failing to modernise and acknowledge a shift in shopping habits.

About 25 years ago, when I was a young butter boy, I remember reading an article by Monty Schiman, which I believe was entitled Shopkeepers on Wheels. Yes, we need to think like shopkeepers, the better ones. Customers need to be valued and respected at all times. We need to give the people what they want, and we must move with the times. We need to provide a first class service at all times.

Some retailers get complacent and suddenly find themselves out of date and heading for the scrap heap. Marks & Spencer is still hanging on, but it recently announced store closures because people have switched to shopping online. M&S has often been criticised for being old- fashioned. Even as a 20 year old shopping in Romford, M&S held no interest for me. As I got older I’d shop there now and again, but it never became an exciting place to spend my valuable time. M&S was never a young person’s shop. Maybe we’re not a young person’s transport service with all that waving your hand in the air? There’s no longer any need to visit the high street to shop, nor to hail a cab. As customers desert the high street, even those hardy souls who still venture into the outside world, order transport on-line in the same way. Thankfully, the trade does have computerised booking apps. They aren’t as well-known as Uber, but with Uber weakened, they might help us regain custom.

If, despite our best efforts the terms “taxi” and “private hire” are being blurred in London, they are even more so in the provinces. I recently saw what we are up against. Following a boozy wedding in rural Oxfordshire, my wife and I needed to get to our guest house in South Oxford. With no cab ranks around, our hosts asked the barmaid to order us a taxi. What arrived was a minicab. Never mind, like most boozed-up members of the cab- riding public, we just wanted to get home. I have to say, the experience was faultless.

In a hurry to get off on the following, the missus asked a passing chef to help book us a taxi. It was a small guest house, but they had some kind of booking app on

their wall. It looked a sophisticated piece of equipment, and not one I’d expect to see in a £75 guest house on Iffley Road. He pressed the button a few times and we were told a blue Toyota would be with us in three minutes.

We need to get our thinking caps on and think about how taxis are hailed generally. There are many towns and cities around the world where waving your hand is unusual. Maybe it’s just a London and New York thing? I’ve never waved a cab down in Leighton Buzzard where I live, and it was considered unusual in Northampton where I previously lived. It was all ranks and phones.

Is the solution to install booking apps on walls? Maybe. The PH one in Oxford wasn’t Uber, it was a smaller private hire firm. I’m sure if modest private hire companies have the power, then we should have the ability to fix booking apps on to London hotel walls.

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