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Are we talking our High Streets into decline? Ways to tackle the gloom…

When Coast announced it was closing stores recently, the predictable doom and gloom headlines returned to the newspapers. Coast was the “latest casualty” proclaimed the newspapers. When we are comparing our high streets to A&E there’s got to be something wrong. But it made me wonder if all of this hand-wringing could well be accelerating the idea of decline? The bad news for the High Street is not just covering our newspapers, it’s blaring out of our radios and being discussed on TV every week. And worse still this doom and gloom perspective is also reaching deep into our social media. Whilst there are clearly seismic shifts in retail and some sad losses to our towns and cities, it feels like we are adding to the woes by talking our high streets into decline.

Not every closure indicates downturn. Churn has always been part of town centres and High Streets. Back in the eighties, I was a fan (now please don’t judge me) of Etam, as I got older I liked Richards, and don’t even get me started on C&A! As a child, I endured being dragged down Walthamstow Market selecting which one of the very many hot dog vans we would choose along the mile-long stretch of market stalls. Eventually those hot dog vans like the stalls reduced in number as out of town retail became the new way to shop.

Retail is by its nature subject to fashion; trends will fall in and out of favour over the years (and sometimes months). When businesses leave our high streets, they are replaced with new ventures. Now of course in some places, the replacement is taking longer, and policies will need to shift to speed the replacement up – creating more favourable conditions for new businesses. But not every closure is a consequence of “Retail Armageddon”, some closures would just happen anyway. By highlighting every closure – are we mistaking downturn for churn?

Whenever ShopAppy starts in a new town or district, we often get to speak to residents. We are always surprised at how many residents talk their area down. “Do you go to the High Street?” We ask. The responses vary but usually fall into three categories…

1.      “We don’t bother going into the high street, it’s all charity shops.”

2.      “I never go into town, it’s all cafes”

3.      ”I would go in but there’s nothing there”

Recently, I was in a wonderful independent deli and a local couple came in… “Well we never knew you were here – we just live close by” said the husband. The deli owner smiled. After they had left, she leaned over to tell me “I have been here 8 years and I still get that comment every week!”

So when we launch ShopAppy in a town and residents see shops and businesses online, they are often surprised at what is available to them. They are surprised by how many businesses they have failed to notice.

If you combine local negativity with national headlines proclaiming the end of the High Street, we have a toxic mix.

At ShopAppy* we are quickly concluding that it could well be a lack of awareness and advocacy from our most local (and easy to reach) customers that hurts our High Streets and town centres most. If you combine local negativity with national headlines proclaiming the end of the High Street, we have a toxic mix. Everything is telling us that our very own High Streets, town centres and markets are not worth a visit. No wonder we automatically opt for online delivery. So what can we do about it?

I would obviously recommend ShopAppy as one simple way to showcase the town and product offering to locals and visitors. It certainly helps to counter the belief that there is nothing on the High Street. And as retail goes, I certainly see a desire to shop and use indie businesses rising. GB High Street Awards also highlight the strengths of our towns and are to be welcomed for creating positive news. But more than that, I believe anyone involved in place making must address the doom head on. Every time we see a negative story, we should acknowledge it and counter it with a positive one, perhaps even if it is just the actions being taken to help. One business closes, we should share news about another business opening, or a new service launching, or a new product range or service coming to town. Every time we see people on our local forums being negative about our area, we should highlight some positives, some green shoots in amongst their gloom.

The headlines at least demonstrate how our high streets are still close to our hearts and identities. But churn is a central part of where we live, it creates dynamism, change and opportunity all in one place. High streets and markets are the testing grounds for new concepts and ideas which can grow and flourish. As testing grounds, businesses start up and some fail, and some traditional concepts just disappear. This churn is crucial but if we continue to talk our high streets into decline, more businesses than ever may just fail to ever start.

*if you are interested in what we are doing to counter the negativity – you can see an example of ShopAppy in action here, see how it works or email us on info@shopappy.com to find out more about what we are doing to help.

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