Rebooting Britain's high streets

Shoppers still care about their local high street but several factors are stopping them from going there to buy. Retailers must work together to attract them back.

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While retail guru Mary Portas attempts to revive the British high street, many shoppers have already turned their backs on their local town centre, frustrated by the lack of choice, quality and service, according to research.

However, most shoppers are willing retailers to make the necessary improvements because they still like the idea of buying goods on their local high street.

The majority of shoppers (73 per cent) care that the nation’s high streets are in decline, according to the survey of 1,000 UK adults by creative agency Live & Breathe, but this doesn’t mean they are actually buying goods in bricks and mortar stores.

The study shows that 43 per cent of people care very much about the fate of their local high street, while 30 per cent say they care ‘a little’. There seems to be almost unanimous agreement that town centres are struggling; only 3 per cent of people disagree with the statement that the high street is in decline.

While it is encouraging that consumers still feel affection towards the high street, many people are not following through in their shopping habits, says Nick Gray, managing director of Live & Breathe. “A lot of the shopper responses are quite positive in our survey but the question is, are they voting with their feet?” he asks.

“People have idealistic memories of high street shopping but they’re still buying online. There’s a massive disconnect between what the shoppers say they want and what they’re doing.”

Twenty-eight per cent are visiting the high street to browse but they rarely buy anything and others are put off from visiting high street shops altogether because they do not believe it is worthwhile.

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12 town centres are part of the Government’s Mary Portas scheme, which aims to revitalise local high streets

Some people appear to place greater value in the social benefits of the high street. For example, 34 per cent say that one of their top high street activities is eating out, while 8 per cent say they go there for nightlife and 7 per cent visit the cinema.

According to the research, 44 per cent of people believe parking is difficult and expensive when they visit the high street, while 34 per cent say there are ‘too many of the wrong sorts of shops’.

Cost and convenience also appear to be of major importance to consumers. Just under half of people (48 per cent) believe their local high street is in decline because the internet makes shopping much easier, while 24 per cent regard the high street as a more expensive place to shop generally.

In order to combat these problems, a growing number of towns and local trading areas are organising into business improvement districts (BIDs). These consist of a group of businesses in a local area that decide to pool together a certain amount of money for investment in their local town or high street. Since the UK’s first BID launched in 2005, the initiative has grown to around 150 groups across the country.

One of the most recent additions is in Guildford, where a BID was set up earlier this year. The organisation, named Experience Guildford, decided to launch a loyalty card scheme for local employees as one of its first acts.

The scheme, developed by marketing software agency Footfall123, means that people working in the town centre can present their cards to businesses that are part of the BID in exchange for an offer or discount. Retailers signed up include McDonald’s, Sunglass Hut, Millie’s Cookies and a number of independent shops.

Employees are crucial to the vibrancy of the high street, according to Kirstie Gattner, project manager for Experience Guildford. “The town centre is where they are every single day and we want them to come back at the weekend or go somewhere on the way home and enjoy it, rather than just go home and log on to Amazon,” she says.

Independent retailers in the loyalty scheme are already experiencing a positive impact on their business, Gattner claims. Experience Guildford is now considering an ‘independence day’ to celebrate the role of independent stores in the town centre.

“Guildford is lucky to have some fantastic independent shops and people are happy to support them - but it’s also important for us to raise awareness of where they are and what they do,” Gattner adds.

This affection for independent retailers is reflected by Live & Breathe’s research. For example, independent shops are the most popular type of store that people would like to see appear in place of empty units on the high street, with 47 per cent of people choosing this option. Only 9 per cent say they would like to see a convenience store format from one of the big supermarkets.

However, this result reveals a fundamental contradiction in shoppers’ attitudes. While they wish there were more independent stores, they trust major retailers more.

The survey asks people to name the convenience stores they trust the most. The major chain retailers come out on top, with Tesco Express receiving the highest percentage of the vote at 55 per cent and the likes of the Co-op and Sainsbury’s Local also making up the top five.

By contrast, only 22 per cent select an independent local store as their most trusted option. This contradiction could be down to the sporadic, top-up nature of people’s grocery shopping on the high street. According to the study, 71 per cent of shoppers visit convenience stores to buy a few daily essentials that supplement their bigger weekly shop. This suggests that although supermarkets are regarded with suspicion when they encroach on the high street, people come to rely on them once they open at a particular location.

Oliver Felstead, managing director at Coupons.com, agrees that consumers’ shopping habits are shifting to a ‘little and often’ pattern that is having an impact on the high street. His company works with product brands and the major supermarkets to develop coupon offers aimed at driving sales both online and in-store.

“Today’s consumer has fundamentally changed how they shop for major household grocery and food products,” he says. “It’s no longer something mum does once a week - people shop as and when they need it.

“There aren’t too many other stores that you need to visit once or twice a week to buy the things we use on an everyday basis so in that respect, convenience stores can inject life into struggling high streets and have a positive impact.”

But adding a few convenience stores is not going to be the whole answer to the declining high street. Retailers need to work harder to offer a good quality experience that will tempt people to revisit their local town centres.

Marketers’ response

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Kirstie Gattner
Project manager
Experience Guildford

Guildford is a really nice town and we haven’t been hit particularly badly by the economic downturn. But anything that you can do to improve the experience and get more people coming into the town centre is important.

That’s why we’re called Experience Guildford - we realised that people want a great experience when they come shopping.

Someone might buy online because they’re not getting the experience elsewhere, so you need to make it clear that if they come into the town centre they can enjoy great customer service, they can get lots of interesting and different things in independent retailers or they can have a really nice shopping experience in one of the high-end shops. You can’t get that online.

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Oliver Felstead
Managing director
Coupons.com

Businesses on the high street need to get better at promoting themselves - not just in terms of how their shop windows look but also how stores can give people a real reason to come and buy. I think that sales promotions - in particular coupons and vouchers - have a definite role to play in that.

The supermarkets already understand that their business relies on getting people into their stores regularly and driving frequency.

As a result, supermarkets understand the value of promotions that have a genuine call to purchase. High street business can learn from the practices of these retailers which are moving in and setting up smaller format convenience stores.

Reviving the high street: the Mary Portas Pilot Scheme

A quarter of Brits are unaware of the Mary Portas Pilot Scheme, a government-backed project aimed at reviving the UK’s high streets. According to research by creative agency Live & Breathe, 38 per cent of people have heard about it but do not believe it is working while only 9 per cent have heard of it and believe it is having a positive impact.

Last May, the Government announced the 12 town centres that make up the first Portas Pilots. The towns, which include Croydon, Margate and Stockport, have each received a slice of a £1.2m funding pot and access to support from the government and retail guru and TV presenter Mary Portas.

While ministers claim the scheme is about revitalising local high streets, some critics have dismissed it as a PR exercise. Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that Portas had not yet visited four of the pilot towns - a fact confirmed by her office.

Nick Gray, managing director of Live & Breathe, says: “There are some councils doing the same kind of thing but doing it a lot better. The council in Waltham Cross is doing it in a piecemeal fashion and by parade so that it has got everyone’s buy-in. It feels like it’s being done for the people by the people as opposed to a celeb making a TV programme whose subject is the high street.”

Readers' comments (3)

  • I think too many independents waste too much time and energy trying to compete with the big retailers, in areas they can never hope to compete in. Instead, they should be thinking about offering things, service and the kind quality the likes of Tesco etc could never do, because either; the volumes and margins are too low, it needs specialist product knowledge you cannot hope to deliver in large generic stores, or just a good old fashioned one to one caring service that only smaller independents can do in a believable and consistent manner.

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  • Having founded the crouch end project in 2007 we (SpeakTo) have been working with town centres across the country.
    Our approach is to apply branding principles to town centres, focusing on local businesses to work together , and properly equip them to form, and communicate under town centre brand that can properly engage the community.
    Too many initiatives lack long term strategy or vision, and fail to achieve local buy in with viable working structure. A sustainable town centre requires a rethink of responsibility, an understanding of the long term commitment required, and hand outs should be stopped.
    6 years on the crouch end project is still going, has involved over 200 local businesses, is a trusted local platform, a small income, now has strong online presence, a new app and is now run locally.
    A town centre brand has the unique advantage that their potential customers are willing it to work, none of us want to live in a ghost town after all, and thats a great place to start.

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  • There's no doubt that consumer patterns have changed, of course e-commerce has had a dramatic impact on shopping habits. It is also true that people like the nostalgic idea of reviving their local high street, but they tend not to vote with their feet. Although i agree there are a lot of empty initiatives which lack any longevity, i admire the efforts to make Britain's high streets more colourful again. Unfortunately in so many cases, inflated rents have driven out so many independents. Just look at Northcote Road in Battersea, once famous for it's thriving independent feel; now a bland collection of the same old brands, the only ones who have the corporate backing to afford the rents. Britain's turning beige.

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