Research retail Series: Reinvigorating the British retail scene

Five ways to reinvigorate the British retail scene - Part 2: More open-air events

Q3 2015

Reports of the British high street's death, like writer Mark Twain 117 years ago, are greatly exaggerated. But, with the growth of fast, convenient online shopping, action is needed fast to prevent the obituary writers from sharpening their pencils to administer the final epitaphs. Rob Williams, Head of Retail Agency & Development at Strutt & Parker's London Head Office, is writing a series of blogs on how to revitalise our town centres. This week he looks at the benefits more open-air events could bring …

Reports of the British high street's death, like writer Mark Twain 117 years ago, are greatly exaggerated. But, with the growth of fast, convenient online shopping, action is needed fast to prevent the obituary writers from sharpening their pencils to administer the final epitaphs. Rob Williams, Head of Retail Agency & Development at Strutt & Parker's London Head Office, is writing a series of blogs on how to revitalise our town centres. This week he looks at the benefits more open-air events could bring …

 

Millions of people will watch this year’s X Factor final. Similar numbers will be gearing up for Strictly Come Dancing, not to mention the millions of football fans up and down the country celebrating the World Cup in Brazil this summer. 

When you head into town and find yourself in the middle of a bustling pop-up street market, or learn about a secret new night-time cinema that’s about to open, or spend the day in the park watching sport on the big screen, isn’t it exciting?

And such events aren’t just exciting – I think they could play a major role in reshaping British retail? Think about it: the opening up of city squares, new use of redundant retail units and hiring big screens to show popular events and host markets, cinemas and shops could be an effective way of getting more people into town centres.

I decided to write this blog on the back of a research report I’ve been reading. Developed by English Heritage last year (we at Strutt & Parker were involved too), The Changing Face of the High Street is an interesting analysis of the various forces influencing British retail today.

Reading over the various case studies in the paper, I’m struck by how, time and time again, the power of street events is mentioned. Take Horsham in West Sussex, for example (page 53). The analysis specifically lists under its ‘lessons learnt’ section:

‘Innovative use of events to encourage people to visit the town centre and enjoy a pleasant shopping and leisure experience in a historic environment.’

Consumer habits are changing – rapidly, so retail needs to change its strategy if it is to succeed. It sounds really obvious, but if we can give people a reason to come into town centres – not just to shop, but to do other things too – couldn’t that breathe new life into our streets?

But who’d organise it and pay for it all? Here I’ve outlined some ideas for high street revitalisation and talked about how it could all be developed.

1.      FIFA World Cup

The possibilities are endless as far as I can see. Flag shops could sell flags and scarves and sports shops could sell discounted international tops.

Restaurants, cafes and bars could join in the fun with themed food and drinks, depending on which countries are playing that day. 

A German match day could see Becks (the beer, not the footballer) and bratwurst, while Italy in action would mean easily-accessible Peroni and pizza.

2.      Farmers' markets and food hubs

Farmers’ markets are big in rural counties such as Bedfordshire. Here, established, conventional traders in places such as Leighton Buzzard and Toddington, far from feeling usurped, actually benefit from their knock-on effect. 

I’m also always impressed by what we might call ‘cooked food’ markets – there’s one by the royal Festival Hall on the weekends. The sheer choice of diversity of the food on offer – paella to pizza, tacos to fish ‘n’ chips – creates a real buzz as people wander around, sampling the food on offer, before exploring the city.

3.      Pop-up shops

Just as they say everyone has a book in them, many people think they could run a shop. 

Pop-up shops, run in temporary commercial spaces on a short-term basis, are on the rise. 

They often cater for specialist tastes, such as Gothic clothing, speciality beers or alternative therapies. 

With good advanced publicity, once again these can have a positive domino effect on neighbouring shops.

Traditional retailers have awoken to the fact that it's better to have a pop-up shop next door than a unit lying dormant.

Tying it all up

These areall good ideas – and not just because I came up with them. Needn’t be costly and would probably be pretty easy to roll out. But question marks hang over such schemes.

It’s a difficult question. For all the hubbub generated from the Portas Review, has anything really come of it? Not much, or, at least, not enough. For such schemes to work, I argue they need formal commitment – and cash – from the public sector. Or maybe we need to go higher-level – bringing together government, local authorities, retailers and developers to work together.

Idealistic? Perhaps. Maybe, then, we could give regions overall control, letting them, say, set up shops in different towns on different days of the week. It wouldn’t be all that expensive, and could prove fruitful. How about a retail champion for each county, responsible for driving the agenda?

There are different options. For many town centres, the answer is there. It only needs someone with the foresight and enterprise to help turn the key to the door. The question is, who?