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Streets Ahead Article 3

The Future of our High Streets - Reconfiguration

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Medium term reconfiguration provides lasting value
This may involve:
• stimulating innovation with things like social network based customer communities;
• encouraging all shops and services to achieve the highest levels of customer service and communication;
• creating flexible spaces for traders, services, hybrid sellers and small businesses;
• promoting a reputation for themes such as ‘Antiques’ or ‘Local produce’; • and improving accessibility with things like pedestrian priority and redesigned parking.

Local traders are a vital ingredient in re-engaging with the consumer. There’s no point in attracting people back into their high street, if when they get there they can find nothing they want to spend their money on. Many high streets already show signs of entering the remorseless downward cycle – where, as a result of the exodus of the ‘quality shoppers’, what’s on offer is increasingly the lowest cost item or service, with no expectation of quality – the pound shops, the charity outlets, the lower end convenience stores and the cheap takeaways. High streets can only reverse the downward cycle if what’s on offer in the shops is exceptional. This could be exceptional customer service, it could be exceptional products sourced locally, or it could be an exceptional experience as a place to spend time.

Traditional models of trading can still be successful, particularly where the alternative threats are not in close proximity, but customer service needs to be so good that customers come back again and again. A good example of an ‘old-school’ retailer that has bucked the trend would be this Ironmongers. At a time when many such stores are closing, this enterprise has survived and prospered by offering an exceptional product range, a pleasant and easy shopping environment and staff that are all knowledgeable, helpful and friendly. The business also benefits from the fact that there are no edge-of-town retail sheds (such as Wickes) to sap their trade.

Many high streets have successfully experimented with encouraging different forms of retail space. Pop-up shops have proved an effective way for enterprises such as small fashion or food specialists to create temporary shops in empty units. Micro-shops, in which empty units are subdivided into small stalls, have also proved very popular for things like street food, retro clothes, accessories and antiques

One solution is to encourage social experiences, to compliment the diminishing retail activity. The proliferation of coffee shops and small eateries shows that people do like to have somewhere to get together and relax. This can be successfully combined with activities such as music venues, small cinemas and evening entertainments – encouraging late trading for the whole high street and the establishment of the so-called ‘night-time economy’.

Another trend that is emerging is the combi-shop, where a seating area is mingled with other businesses. The highly successful ‘Bills’ pioneered this in Lewes, combining fruit and veg shopping with a busy restaurant and cafe. Others have combined coffee shops with retro antiques and art galleries. Dippy doodahs, in Hailsham, is good example of new thinking and a constantly evolving approach that is likely to be more resilient in today’s marketplace. Dippy doodahs started up as a ‘Tearoom, giftshop, and clothing boutique’. The interior was part gift shop, part cafe, part someone’s front room. This ‘combi-shop’, run by friendly and enthusiastic Kate Bishop, has been the base for craft workshops and events like jewellery making and glass sculpture. Today, clothes have made way for an enlarged eating area. Every stage of the shops evolution is relayed, in breathless tones, to all Dippy Doodahs many followers on facebook and twitter. Places like this are as much about their relationship with a group of interested and loyal customers, as they are about the things they sell and the services they provide.

Many traders are already combining conventional retailing with thriving online trading. The online business enables the enterprise to reach customers on potentially a global scale. The resultant supplementary sales volume helps to make the physical trading viable. An online presence also helps to publicise the shop and bring people in. Traders like this are also generally very active users of social media as a way of strengthening their relationship with loyal customers and tapping into changes in consumer demands.

The domination of some high streets by heavy traffic is the result of the relentless increase in traffic volumes. But high streets can be successfully ‘reconfigured’, to give the high street back to shoppers, without having necessarily to completely block out traffic. In fact allowing some short term parking can be good for trade. There are also many successful examples where changes such as surfacing the road like a pavement and allowing only small pockets of

parking have changed the dynamic and made the street a more friendly, safe and inviting place. Eastbourne town centre now combines pedestrian areas with road access where traffic is very slow and parking is limited to short stay or deliveries. The pedestrian (and increasingly also the cyclist) is now very definitely the owner of the town centre space. Part of the pedestrianised area is now also used for a flourishing weekly street market. In 2014, Hailsham announced plans for a radical improvement to its main streets. The new layout will include dedicated 'park and shop' spaces, improved crossings and junctions, and generally a more inviting experience for both pedestrians and visiting drivers.

High streets may increasingly need to focus on a theme or emphasis. Consumers are more likely to make a location a ‘destination’ if they feel it’s known for something in particular. This could be specific, such as ‘retro’ or ‘locally produced food’ or it could be general such as “a great place to potter around the little shops and stalls”. George Street, in Brighton’s Kemp Town, has become a destination for retro furniture and bric-a-brac. Local traders got together to create promotional material listing all the shops that specialise in this type of goods - creating a sense of identity for the area and spreading the word.