TOWNS REGENERATION CONTEST LAUNCHED
From the press release “The Government today (4th Februray 2012) launched a competition to find 12 areas to share £1 million under a drive to regenerate town centres. The move followed last year’s review of high streets by retail “guru” Mary Portas aimed at halting the decline of high streets and closure of local shops.
The 12 towns in England will be selected to run so-called Portas Pilots and “breathe new life” into local shopping centres, creating town teams, made up of the key players in their local community – such as the council, landlords, shopkeepers and the local MP.
Local government minister Grant Shapps said: “Our high streets have faced stiff competition from internet shopping, and out-of-town shopping centres, leaving them unused, unloved and under-valued. The internet is not going to go away, and so for our high streets to survive they need to offer something new and exciting. So today I’m offering a “golden ticket” to 12 town centres across the country to become Portas Pilots – areas with the vision and enthusiasm to breathe new life into what should be the beating heart of their communities, and they will get Mary’s and my support as they try out the ideas in her recent review.”
Mary Portas said: “I am thrilled that now there is an opportunity to turn my recommendations into reality by giving communities across the country the opportunity to come forward with their vision for breathing new life into their locality. I want the first 12 town teams to challenge the old ways of working, experiment, take risks and reaffirm their place at the heart of a community. A place we all want to be and can be proud of.” End Press release.
This morning I was invited onto LBC radio to comment on this, and I got into rather a passionate debate when asked…
What would Clare Rayner, The Retail Champion do to turn around our town centres?
I was additionally asked, is this a gimmick? My response was “No, apart from sounding like Willy Wonka (references to Golden Tickets) this isn’t a gimmick but a much needed trial of implementation of the recommendations from the Portas review. HOWEVER… There is NOT a one-size fits all approach to our towns, it is critical that we recognise the current issues are in part due to the “clone towns” (each looking the same as the next) and in fact what we need are towns uniquely in tune with the local community that they serve! This means asking the community what they want from their town centre, what they need and also looking ahead at the generation who have migrated away, the “online, social” generation – how could their towns appeal to them?
My suggestions referenced the need to “sort out the basics, such as accessible parking” but then I moved on to talk about the innovation called for to “win the golden ticket” and the reference to the threat of the internet… To me the “basics” are clean, accessible, safe and welcoming town centres – given the rates everyone pays surely that’s a “hygiene factor” – the bare minimum we can expect – that’s not innovation, that’s frankly essential! I reflected on the fact that the internet HAS profoundly changed consumer behaviours and the way in which we shop, the highest spending groups (teens, young adults, families) are ALL (almost all) online and social! Retailers need to embrace this and bring the internet experience to life in store to engage with the generation who gets a panic attack if they go 2 minutes up the road to the corner shop and discover they left their phone at home…. This was the essence of a blog I wrote just after the Portas review, where I highlighted the fact that she’d overlooked the multi-channel opportunity (see that blog via The multichannel consumer experience – the missing element of Portas review?)
But the response to my suggestions of innovation and example of using FourSquare to encourage check-ins and reward loyalty was dismissed as not really attacking the main problems of rates, parking, security, cleanliness and rentals…
Why addressing the “hygiene factors” won’t be enough to bring shoppers back to town centres. This ONLY levels the playing field with out of town and shopping centres!
The thing is we have to believe that the state of the town centres MUST be addressed! It is simply unacceptable that towns are inaccessible, unsafe and dirty. It is a disgrace that rents and rates are so high in environments that no one would want to spend time in! But these aren’t going to turn the high street around – if you get the basics sorted all that happens is you level the playing field between town centre and out of town or shopping centre! STILL consumers when faced with the choice WON’T break the habits they have formed to chose out of town / shopping centre over town centre. High streets need to REALLY step up to leap-frog the competition. They need to become the environment of choice for shoppers. They need to be mindful of the needs and wants of the communities they serve and be relevant, engaging, dynamic and offer something that exceeds the convenience and “controlled” environment of the out of town or shopping centre environment AND they have to work with, not against the desire of consumers to use the internet to shop and socialise!
So I was quite cross that yet again the interviewer wanted to focus on things that MUST be addressed but which WON’T be enough to win over consumers.
No one is thinking of the shopper in all of this! The ones we really need to win over are the customers!
I realised that my “anger” with this interview, and my passion to get my point across, stems from the very fact everyone seems to have a bee in their bonnets about what matters to the businesses, what matters to the councils, but no one is really thinking about the customers! The customers have, in the main, GONE AWAY. It is imperative we attract them back to town centres; but only town centres ready to welcome them – clean, safe and accessible!
The retail offer must be relevant, engaging and tailored to the local community. Retailers need to understand that a Tesco in the town centre HELPS footfall, as does an M&S, a New Look, a Boots, a Clarks and a handful of other KEY multiples (depending on the communituy!) There is an important synergy between “core multiples” and independents that each centre needs to draw the footfall – this balance between the diversity and creativity the independents can bring and the stability and consistency of the multiples is beneficial for ALL those residing in a high street. Add to that the need for coffee shops, bars, restaurants, a library, a Post Office… depending on the area many other services are needed in a town that go beyond retailing!
Consumers will never do all their shopping online, or indeed in store, they will use a mix – town centres can support that e.g. providing in store collection points for online orders which then may result in the occasional impulse purchase too.
Consumers have become accustomed to some excitement around their shopping experience – even my 85 year old Grandmother can order online BUT she loves to get out to the town, to meet friends in a cafe and to browse the shops, to buy herself a treat that catches her eye – it’s all about experience. We’ll NEVER get to that experience if the hygiene factors aren’t addressed first and THEN the innovation added.
So, these 12 “Portas-Pilot” towns better speak to the local communities before they start spending their share of the money!
What IS happening that should really help consumers to re-engage with their local high streets?
July is going to be an amazing month for retailers and consumers alike! July is Independent Retailer Month, a whole month dedicated to encouraging consumers to shop local and rediscover the delights on their door-step. Retailers have an “excuse” to work together to run events and activities in their local areas throughout July that will remind consumers how much fun it can be to “go out to the shops”. A whole month is almost enough time to form a habit (apparently it takes 6 weeks) therefore if the momentum continues throughout July it may well continue indefinitely, so long as the retailers keep engaging the consumers.
There is also Skillsmart Retail’s “Independents’ Day” on 4th July – consumers are encouraged to buy at least 1 item from a local independent retailer on 4th July. The biggest announcement for me was NABMA (National association of British Market authorities) who will have a “National Market Day” in July. It will take place in the earlier part of July, and be an Independent Retailer Month event. Markets have been identified as one of the most significant factors that draw consumers into town centres, so this is fantastic news.
So, lots to look forward to, but lets not all get stuck moaning about hygiene factors – the change in consumer behaviour is, for retailers who are not ready to innovate, an “extinction level event”! Those who innovate, evolve, and bring their customer engagement model in line with what customers want will become the dominant species. There are exciting times ahead for those willing to innovate; lets just hope the people with the power to sort out the hygiene factors get on with it, pronto!