The great British high street: Tune in, turn on, pop up

Contrary to popular opinion, the Great British High Street isn’t so much dead as changing, it seems.


It’s true that the recession saw lots of big brands, including the iconic Woolworths of pick-and-mix sweeties fame, go to the wall. But, although it may not always feel like it, there are now more retail outlets in the average town centre than there have have been since 2011 apparently, with vacancy rates standing at about 9.8%, a drop of 0.3% on last year.


On the downside though, the actual number of people visiting them has fallen by 2.2% over the last 12 months. But surprisingly, given that shopping centres always seem to be heaving whenever I make a rare venture into one, footfall there was hit even more, tumbling by 2.5%.


Everybody, it seems, was too busy buying stuff using their mobile phones or iPads in the comfort of their own living rooms, a phenomenon that has led to the UK being crowned the e-commerce capital of Europe. Or careering off to enjoy the sterile pleasures of giant out-of-town retail parks, which had the good fortune to see shopper numbers rise by 3.1%.


So in the face of such apparently mixed statistics, just how is the high street changing, you may query? A fascinating report by the University of Southampton entitled “British High Streets: From Crisis to Recovery” posits that in the wake of a six-year period of economic crisis and austerity (2008-2014), many town centres have survived by becoming more diverse.


One example of this diversity is that independent retailers have survived the recession more happily than many of the chain stores and still make up 65% of all shops in the UK – despite having had a bad year in 2015 when more outlets closed than opened in the first six months for the first time since 2012. Often quirky pop-up shops are another interesting phenomenon here.


According to a study conducted by the Centre for Economics & Business Research for telecoms company EE, the sector grew by 12.3% over the last year, valuing it at £2.3 billion, the equivalent of 0.76% of the UK’s entire retail turnover.


Although most commonly seen in London, this kind of store now employs a huge 26,000 people across the country. And, interestingly, nearly a third of all new retail businesses launched in the UK over the next two years are expected to start life in this way as they are considered a good vehicle for gauging interest, testing ideas out and reaching new customers.


Diversified high streets


Anyway, going back to the idea of diversified high streets, change is also happening in the shape of a growing shift towards service providers like hairdressers, beauty salons and tattoo parlours as well as such havens of leisure as pubs, cafes and restaurants.


In fact, these are now the fastest growing categories of business on the high street and really do seem to make all the difference. Not only do they encourage more people to visit, but they also induce them to stay longer and spend more. In a world in which rising numbers of people either work from home or travel around a lot, cafes and bars can also end up assuming an important social role, becoming hubs that are used for both working and networking.


But what this all seems to say to me is that the high street’s most obvious means of differentiating itself is by packaging up all of its attractions into a neat little bundle and offering them to shoppers as an “experience”. And an experience that, with the best will in the world, they simply can’t get online due to the inherent nature of the thing.


So Saffron Walden, the charming little market town in north Essex where I live, for example, could play on its attractiveness as an overall tourist destination, something helped by its proximity to London and Cambridge, making it an ideal day-trip for international tourists from both as well as more local people from Essex and other nearby counties.

Saffron Walden market and town hall
Saffron Walden market and town hall

On offer here is an aspirational classical music venue the Saffron Hall, loads of unspoiled historic buildings, beautiful Grade 2 listed gardens (my personal fave), a couple of mazes and a goodly number of independent shops, cafes and restaurants, all of which make it a lovely destination in which to while away a few happy hours.


And this, it seems, is exactly what the Saffron Walden Town Team are hoping to do with their #MySW campaign. Launched last week, the campaign is to act as the basis of the town’s entry into the ‘Great British High Street of the Year’ competition next year. The aim of the competition, meanwhile, is to recognise and celebrate innovative regeneration work going on in town centres across the UK and the winner receives £50,000 to help it on its way.


As part of its efforts, the Town Team has come up with an advert that will run on Cambridgeshire’s Star FM radio station until Christmas Eve as well as a new promotional video, work on which was coordinated with the local Tourist Information Centre. But there’ll also be a Summer of Arts and Culture fiesta, which will include an event to celebrate community cinema Saffron Screen’s 10th anniversary as well as a Maze Festival in August.


All of which just goes to show that a few ideas and a lot of enthusiasm can take you really quite a long way.


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