I don’t think anyone would claim our high streets are thriving, and whilst some are better than others, most are in need of a boost. The government invested in some support for the high street, but I am not sure how appropriate that is – either in terms of the quality of what they are offering or in terms of the government’s role in supporting private business. Whilst they are ideally placed to tackle structural issues, those around business rates for instance, I believe when underlying structural issues are tackled, businesses will naturally find a way to evolve.
All high street businesses need a deep understanding of the needs and wants of their local customer
Of course a high street isn’t a single entity; it’s a collection of independently operated businesses which together deliver the “offer” to the consumer. In some areas there is a good balance between services, shops and leisure facilities, and between chains and independent businesses. It comes as no surprise that these areas are doing ok. In other areas it’s not so rosy – a lack of certain services, a “clone town” appearance, a significant number of empty premises… all these factors contribute to a spiral of decline that will take a long time to turn around.
What high streets, and thus the businesses within them, really need to do is gain a deep understanding of the needs and wants of the local consumers – the residents, the commuters – the people who live, work and spend their leisure time in the catchment area of the town. Only when they have that deep understanding of what this consumer wants can the businesses, and the town as a whole, evolve and adapt to ensure they are relevant, fit for purpose and meeting the current and predicted future needs of those customers.
It’s critical that we take our time to re-educate consumers as to the value their spend has for the local economy
That said, a shift in consumer spending habits is also required. Unless consumers make the effort to explore the businesses in their local area, discover that there is an alternative to shopping in supermarkets, malls and online, and that going to the town centre can be enjoyable, it won’t matter how evolved a town centre is, how relevant it has become, the businesses will not survive. Consumers need to be re-educated about the value-add of spending locally, and in particular with smaller, independent businesses. Many do not appreciate the contribution that local businesses make to the local economy and similarly don’t realise how valued they are, as customers, when they make the choice to spend with a local businesses.
Community engagement, reconnecting the local people with local businesses is key!
Personally I believe that community engagement, and campaigns to reconnect the local people with the local businesses, is the answer. I am so passionately of this belief that I’ve invested a huge amount of my own time, money and resource into creating a year-round campaign dedicated to supporting independent retailers that is brought to life by 3, annual, campaign events – Independent Retailer Month (throughout July), Celebrate an Independent Christmas (in the 6-weeks prior to Christmas) and Enjoy an Independent Easter (the 3 weeks around Easter, encompassing the school holiday).
Working with local champions – “Local activation partners”
These campaign events have proven to be hugely effective in terms of increasing community engagement, footfall and sales. To deliver a national activity of course requires resources, and I’ve found that the best and most effective approach is to engage with someone who is willing to be the catalyst for local action. I’ve called them “local activation partners”. Typically these are passionate and proactive people within each of the communities – they could be local shoppers, business owners or representatives of the council – whoever they are, what they DO is really champion the campaign activities at the local level, getting buy-in from both the high street businesses and the consumers, re-connecting them with one another through promotions, activities and events.
Campaigns give us all “permission” to do something different and help to break our habits!
Campaigns work well because they give businesses an “excuse” (if they ever needed one) to create some noise about their existence, to justify any special events they are running because it’s all about backing a campaign. Similarly campaigns give consumers an “excuse” to have some fun, to try something new, to get involved because they want to support the campaign. It seems this “excuse” or “justification” for a change in behaviour, a break from the norm, is something that some of us Brits need to enable us to step off the treadmill of our day to day lives and to break our behavioural habits.
Beyond Portas – has the government had a meaningful and positive impact?
However, in the time since I have been focusing on our high streets, towns and village centres, and in particular the independent retailers within them, the government developed their “Portas Projects”. Their actions, of course thanks to the very public profile of Ms Portas, have garnered much attention. A great deal of money was allocated to Portas Pilots and to Town Teams. However compared to what they’ve taken back from the high street in business rates rises it was loose change. There is much debate over the impact this money has had, and whilst some areas have used it positively there are many others who have not, and who have been chastised for not taking swift action to curb the rapid decline that some areas have experienced.
Whatever the money did or did not achieve, the “Portas Pilots” did capture the imagination of people in towns UK-wide. There are some 400 town-teams up and running and many have been given a small contribution from DCLG to help them kick-start activities to support improvement projects in their local area. Certainly all the town teams, whether Portas Pilots or not, have received funds because of their intent to make change. It may not be being delivered as quickly as it should be, but at least the intent is there. What does seem to have been wasteful was the “High Street Innovation Fund” which was allocated, without warning, to the 100 towns deemed to have the highest vacancy rates in order to support councils in addressing the empty shops problem in their area. Each town was given £100K – a total of £10million. This wasn’t applied for and was paid, without warning, into the local council’s bank accounts. Much of it hasn’t been used yet, and where it has been used it’s not been to address the empty shops issue that it was intended for. What’s worse is that the process to determine the towns chosen resulted in some very questionable locations appearing in the top 100 “most vacant” towns, locations which did not actually appear to have an empty shops problem at all.
Addressing business rates would probably have had more of a positive impact, for more businesses, than the Portas projects…
Of course all of these sums of money are eclipsed when you look at what the government have raided from the high street in the last 2 budgets… the 2012 and 2013 business rates increases have extracted £550million of additional tax from the retail sector. This has been cited by many as the reason why big businesses are withdrawing from the high street and why smaller businesses have been reluctant to open. The fact is that business rates make occupying high street property very costly.
What is my advice for those in town teams and supporting their local community?
For any town teams, my advice is to focus on working hard to engage the local community. This can be achieved through simple activities that reconnect consumers with local businesses, educating them about their presence, their offer, their pricing (many assume they will be too costly) or why their contribution to the local economy is so important.
From experience, simple, effective activities that get people working together is the way forward – it’s not about cash, it’s about collaboration!
In my experience, particularly following the Enjoy an Independent Easter activities which saw 56 towns running Easter egg hunts, making it fun and family-centric is the key to capturing the imagination of the public.
What was also particularly powerful about the Indie Easter campaign was that it connected places all around the UK, including Northern Ireland, through a common theme. It also got people talking to each other which is vital for progress. It’s had the desired affect too – increased footfall and sales. Through regular, repeated campaign events I hope that we will manage to re-educate consumers about the impact of their decisions and shopping habits, and, in turn, I hope that this will be a factor in getting more people to shop with local businesses, in their community, more often.
It’s then the duty of the local businesses, as I mentioned at the outset, to ensure THEY keep their end of the bargain – constantly reinventing themselves to stay relevant and appropriate to the local community that they serve.