OPINION

17.4.13

The High Street is ours.
Let’s work together to save it.

Tom Robertshaw, managing director at LRD looks at retail’s burning issue

 

Is St Peter Port High Street the heart of our community still? Is it the driver of the economy and social interaction that it once was? How is it faring in this age of economic turbulence, high rents, out-of-town retail developments and internet shopping? Is the patient in rude health, slightly under-the-weather or in need of an emergency operation? Help! Is there a doctor in the house?

In all honesty, the symptoms of the high street’s sad decline are obvious. But, I believe, with the introduction of a lifestyle change and the swallowing of a few bitter pills the prognosis could be good. 

Unfortunately, according to a recent report by Saatchi & Saatchi, described as ‘a love letter to the high street from an unexpected group of admirers’, one in six shops in UK high streets is boarded up and footfall has fallen by 10% in the last three years. They describe the decline as an economic issue but also as a cultural, social and moral one too.

Many of us will remember the St Peter Port of the past with its quirky, idiosyncratic local shops and colourful characters. Times change of course but the charm of establishments such as Gabriels and Gruts is undeniable. It’s their uniqueness, their stubborn single-minded refusal to be another homogenous chain store and their relationship to their community that made them such a valuable and vital expression on the face of a thriving town centre. We have a visitor economy and these shops were what made us distinctive from other towns in the UK and tourists loved their eccentricity. Vive la difference!

As they close down, never to return and the national stores move in to take their place it is interesting to see that even these corporate heavyweights are not immune to market forces. Life without Woolworths would have been unimaginable a few years ago and now Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster are the latest casualties. In a recent report in The Guardian it was claimed that ‘…140 leading retailers are on the critical list and a further 13,700 are in significant distress’. Statistics show that in the UK the number of superstores has risen by a third while 80% of our small butchers, fishmongers, bakers and greengrocers have vanished since the 1960s. Out-of-town shopping has had a profound impact on the small trader and his community and who hasn’t bought a book, CD, DVD or Christmas present on the internet? We all have.

So, is the high street dead? Being given its last rites? Indeed, does anybody care?

A surprise finding in the Saatchi & Saatchi report comes from a survey of young UK residents aged between 16-29. They interviewed 1,500 and asked them about their high street and the role it plays in their lives. Despite their ability to access a multiplicity of services and products online, these youngsters make regular trips to their high streets with 78% having visited the week before the study. 

Why? Well, even with the glamour and the range of products of the out-of-town experience and the convenience of the internet, the vast majority love the close proximity of their high street and the sense of belonging it provides. As a group, these young shoppers have a high level of affection for the place where they had their first kiss, got together with friends and bought their first coffee and had their first Saturday jobs. Most surprising of all was that these youngsters are very entrepreneurial and 48% of those surveyed would like to start their own business and would relish the opportunity to operate in the high street rather than in a shopping mall or exclusively online. 

Unfortunately, they also said that UK high street retailers do little to make them feel welcome. Identikit stores appear to want them to make a purchase and then go home. They feel that to use the high street to have a social experience is not encouraged and they do not feel as if their contribution to the future welfare of such an important place in the community is desired at all.

In a nutshell, these youngsters feel let down and pushed away by the high street despite having an historic affection for it. When you take these feelings of rejection and add high rents that only soulless, national chain stores can afford, the lack of quirky boutique traders and inviting social spaces, restrictive local government practices, and competition from internet and ‘out-of-town’ shopping and you wonder why we don’t all go home, turn on ‘Come Dine With Me’ and never open the front door again. 

Strangely though, I feel optimistic! I think we can do something to breathe life into our High Street and make it the heart of the Guernsey community it was years ago. I am not ready to turn off the life-support machine just yet. I have a cunning plan and it might just work, but we have to want it to work and we all have to play our parts. 

As Saatchi & Saatchi say, retailers should focus less on transactions that try to compete on price with large superstores and online retailers in a battle they will never win. They should focus more on the whole high street experience. The conclusion is that retailers must challenge themselves, make customers feel wanted, give them areas where they can be sociable with each other, provide shops that are eclectic and have a personality that is appropriate for its locality and shows pride in the community, create opportunities for new, young retailers to experiment with pop-up shops and artisan products. We should all listen more to young people, the future of the high street. We need their ideas and energy to move forward. 

Landlords must take a liberal long-term view on rent and allow young entrepreneurs to prosper and the High Street to breathe and grow. The States of Guernsey should set up breaks for landlords so there is no benefit in leaving a property empty but there is one for allowing it to be used. The Town Constables should do everything in their power to allow St Peter Port to become a thriving hub that promotes social interaction and engagement. They can do so much more to make us proud of our town centre, to make it a place we want to visit even if we do not want to buy anything. The Guernsey Photography Festival, Literary Festival and Town Carnival all show what is possible but where is the municipal art the rest of the year?   

We, as shoppers, must keep the faith because our High Street can become the heart of our community again. St Peter Port is one of the most attractive towns in Britain but it is not being allowed to live up to its potential. Our High Street is not dead, it just requires a large injection of TLC and to feel wanted. It has waited an eternity for its hospital bed but now it is time for the most important transfusion of its life.