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Shropshire's high streets - flying high or falling flat?

With well-publicised soaring rates and dwindling retail figures, is the high street as a shopping and social centre doomed? Not if retailers adopt the right attitude, according to high street champion Sally Themans

 

It’s a tough time for high street retailers, make no mistake.

High rents, high rates and an ever-marching onslaught from increasingly sophisticated online retailers is making life uncomfortable for Shropshire’s high street butchers bakers and candlestick makers (or rather scented candle sellers).

But all is not lost; provided retailers have a keen eye to understanding and listening to what exactly it is that customers want, and adapt and tailor their product and service accordingly there is still an appetite for shopping locally.

I have been involved with both Bridgnorth’s successful Great British High Street entry and Telford and Wrekin’s Pride in Your High Street programme and what I see is more and more people recognising that their high street is the beating heart of their community. Furthermore they attach value to the expertise, friendliness and individual service they receive there which is inevitably missing from online or large store shopping.

Shoppers want to use local services, but often the retailers do not respond in the way want, and at times there are some harsh realities to face up to.

This focus on the customer is the answer to survival in the high street. There are plenty of examples of high streets which are thriving, and sadly, plenty that are not.

Those that are winning the battle include retailers who have adopted and learnt new skills, possibly embracing new technologies to communicate better with a new generation of shoppers, whilst maintaining that good old fashioned excellence and attention to detail. They are led by champions of the local cause who promote ‘shop local’ campaigns such as Bridgnorth’s Buy Big in Bridgnorth or Newport’s Town Team.

Large chains and shopping centre shops are not as well placed to be able to adapt and respond to customers as quickly as independents so a canny retailer can steal a march on the competition even if at times they just feel overwhelmed by the ‘big guns’ with their lean margins.

Telford & Wrekin Council attached priority to the borough’s high streets in its Pride in Your Community scheme and introduced its High Street Fund. Money was made available for projects to improve the fortunes of high streets.

By helping retailers focus on excellence and sustainability by getting them to concentrate on what their customers want rather than what they want to sell – or perhaps doing what they’ve always done - and improving their offer, raises the overall standard of a high street’s retail opportunities through a ripple effect and which in turn attracts incoming retailers.

As part of the project we canvassed a number of retailers about what made their high streets stand out and overwhelmingly it was about individual customer service and friendliness.

Some also felt they had been left behind when it came to skills training, so one of the ways we responded was by offering free training in social media to connect more effectively with the local community and communicating with potential customers. We referred to it as simply as ‘having a conversation’ more easily with customers.

One of the retailers who has felt the positive effect is Hannah Tranter from The Cook Shop in Newport. “We had dabbled in social media but not really done it properly,” she said. “We’ve now had extensive coaching through the Pride in Your High Street programme with Good2Great and are finding that slowly but surely we’re able to communicate with a much larger number of potential customers and draw them into our shop – particularly for special shopping events or sales – so the reach of our clientele has expanded.

“We can also engage with them more easily so we have a greater understanding of their needs and trends. That in turn helps us stock the right products which has reduced our stockholding – making us more financially efficient.”

To help retailers and promote high streets is precisely why there are competitions like the Great British High Street, a nationwide initiative run by the Department for Communities and Local Government, to champion not just pretty ‘chocolate box’ market towns, but real-life, sometimes small inner-city parades of shops and retail centres who have adapted and changed to meet the changes in shopping habits.

The competition aims to seek out and share examples of good practice – and one of the things that Bridgnorth, this year’s overall winner in the large market town category, scored highly on was local groups working with the local council and retailers to achieve outcomes which encourage footfall to the High Street.

Those retailers that have done well have recognised the high street as a venue at the centre of the community, not just a shopping area, by putting on events such as specialist markets, carnivals and street fayres. Bridgnorth has continental markets, a music festival and its award winning Christmas Lighting up event; Newport has just staged a Food Frenzy and has just changed its carnival route to linger longer on the high street; Wellington will be looking forward to its Charter Day Market later this month.

Such events serve two purposes by bringing people into the towns. They attract inquisitive visitors who, if they like the feel of the town, will revisit in the future. Such events also remind local residents what they have on their doorstep.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for retailers to showcase what they do and what they have to offer,” says retail expert Carmel Allen, commercial director of the Linley Group and Homes & Gardens Retailer of the year. “I know in Bridgnorth for example such events see thousands visiting the high street.”

But disappointingly not all retailers see such events as a bonus, despite the increased footfall passing their doorways.

If we delve a little deeper we find many are closed or simply haven’t put on anything special to embrace the visitors and just expect them to enter their shops. Those that do – such as the local butcher selling hot baps or the café handing out vouchers or even small tempting goodies – or those that merchandise outside their shop are justly rewarded on such occasions.

Local retailer Kirstie Hurst-Knight of Boutique No. 7 in Bridgnorth is one retailer who takes full advantage of the increased footfall.

“These events are a real boon for us,” she says. “We’re not obvious on the high street because we have a small window and limited signage, but people tend to discover us at these events, we see lots of new faces who we’re pleased to welcome again as they become future customers.”

One of the things that has become clear in this work with so many retailers is that attention to detail is absolutely key. It’s an old adage but still true today. Carmel advises: “I always like to think of it as entertaining. Think of your shop as your home. You’d make sure the front doorstep is clean, the window and signage is immaculate. You’d welcome your guests and talk to them and find out what they want and make them comfortable.”

It’s an effective analogy, as is the advice from Dan Cornes, commercial director for the 18 award-winning St Richards hospice shops in Worcestershire. “Make it easy to for customers to give you money. And never ignore them – get off your phones and welcome them. Try to see your premises with fresh eyes every morning.”   

I, like so many local champions who work hard for their high streets up and down the county, have a real love for my home town of Bridgnorth, and, together with Sarah Stevens who was the co-entrant for our GB High Street bid, am on a mission to promote the positive and encourage people to use and celebrate our town and our high street.

Yes, we have one or two vacant shops, yes there are some ‘grumblers’ – it’s far from perfect and we know that - but we have a healthy balance of chains and independents, of older established and new and innovative retailers.

We recognise that if our high street is thriving, then our town is thriving. And that’s worth shouting about – and changing your shopping habits for.

Or, if you don’t have someone who’s fighting for your high street, making it your mission.

 

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