There is always lots of talk about how to revitalise our High Streets and towns, but who actually asks consumers what they want?
As a consumer champion I hear exactly what consumers want. When I ask consumers what they would like to see in the High Street, there are two issues that come through loud and clear every time:
Parking to shop
Consumers are fed up with having to pay over the odds for parking. Around the country where councils have made parking free for 2 hours, footfall has increased. A classic response from one shopper was “Needs to follow what retail parks have done to see where customer appetites are. Having a large open plan purpose built parking area instead of 23 stupid different car parks that you need to drive around before you can see if there is a space then reverse out and follow a one way system back to try again elsewhere.” People with disabilities often get forgotten too. Towns and cities offering mobility scooters are not helping people keep their mobility or independence. Consideration should be given to making spaces available at key points.
The High Streets Task Force recognises the importance of parking to revitalising our shopping areas but there is still much to do to get the right evidence and deliver what consumers want.
Over and over again consumers say they want market stalls to fill the space in the large empty stores. This can be done by reducing the rents to allow the smaller businesses in. Councils need to provide incentives for local and independent businesses. The pandemic has shown that people want to shop locally and they want to support independent shops but it is often so difficult, especially with companies like Amazon able to undercut.
Consumers also want to see an increase of shops that “actually sell stuff”. This means a reduction in the betting shops, estate agents and more than one store selling the same thing. Bring back the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. Literally! Councils need to purchase empty buildings and turn them into exciting places and opportunities for local businesses and residents.
Creativity in our town planning
Companies have found that flexibility in working is now saving costs, so they won’t be rushing to get staff back in and certainly not if they can’t do it safely. Even if they did this alone, it is not enough to stimulate the town centres and High Streets. Empty shops and just talk of lower rent and rates with better parking will not populate those spaces not filled by vaping stores, betting shops or tanning booths. So, we need to be creative. There’s a difference between a run-of-the-mill project manager working creatively and a creative person working creatively. The creative person can bring a whole wealth of knowledge, skills, imagination, inspiration, experience and vision to the table.
Someone with project management experience is certainly needed. But not a retail background. An experienced individual with an arts background, for example, who will bring a whole new and fresh approach to the locality. Many will already be experienced in truly working in partnership with other organisations and are effective when working with limited resources! They will bring in community groups from which great things grow, so as to bring in custom in a whole new way. The very basic and most obvious is, of course, the community cafes and the work that goes on in them, and different pop up stalls each month, but there is so much more that could be done.
Shopping and community go together
People are attracted to meeting and being with more of their community, doing a variety of things. Now more than ever: Organise a flash mob, the local theatre group putting something on, an artist in residence, children’s entertainers, a workshop to learn something new. Dragging the kids shopping can be a difficult experience! How much easier would it be to have activities that they can join in? This gives a reason for the children to go too.
Working innovatively with these community, voluntary and small creative businesses, such as being able to raise their profile, recruit and sell, would be a “win-win” for all.
Town centres could and should be at the heart of a community, whilst many high streets are currently soulless and lacking imagination.
Covid has brought a variety of obstacles for the local community group struggling to navigate the mitigation indoors and with hire charges and participant conundrums etc. Creative industries have been as hard hit, if not more so than the High Street, so why not bring them together? The high street is a place where councils can step up and help bring together many different organisations and a large cross section of the community with the correct creative strategy and understanding.
Put a creative in charge not a town planner! Radical? Not really. It makes perfect logical sense.
For some innovative and creative ways to revitalise our High Streets and shopping centres see The Art of reviving the great British High Street