// Celebrate indies, but the problems of the high street won't be fixed by them alone
High streets are complex and there are no simple solutions to addressing the problems, writes BEN STEPHENSON, consultant for BAS Consultancy.
If you listen to Any Answers? on BBC Radio 4 on a Saturday afternoon, you quickly come to recognise a particular type of caller: those for whom every problem has a simple solution, if only people would just listen to them. In response to that perennial question 'how do we save the high street?' it's always more free parking, scrapping business rates or supporting independent shops. And while all of these factors might contribute to the debate, none of them alone are the magic bullet.
The question itself is wrong of course, but we're used to seeing this issue couched in absolute terms. High streets are being redefined by economic and social forces, yes, and in many places painfully so, but most of those who work in our sector recognise that the dying high street trope is mostly handy clickbait. The transformation process will take time even as it has gathered pace during the pandemic, and some places will pull this off more sucessfully than others. It all needs serious focus and vision from the community up and the government down.
In this article I want to try to understand what we mean when we talk about independents. It's a hard thing to write about, because in many respects the idea that we must support our independent shopkeepers is unassailable, but I think that the subject might benefit from some unpicking.
We need more data on this, but it certainly seems clear that 'shop local' campaigns, new technologies and a shift towards localism over lockdown have been somewhat effective in re-establishing the link between the shopper and their neighbourhood. A recent survey by Cartwright Communications suggested that 63% of shoppers think its important to support local independent retailers.
A healthy clutch of independently-owned shops is vital if we want to avoid clone towns and encourage enterprise in the recovery from Covid. But not only are there many other factors that determine the success of our town centres, we also need to be careful about the assumptions we make when we talk about indies.
Here's an example. Lower Marsh in Waterloo where I used to work has suffered changing fortunes over the years, but it's strength has always been in the fact that it served a range of communities and interests. It might have been known for its independents and its market, but it was clear that key drivers of footfall were the Iceland, the Boots and the Greggs, with peaks at lunch for the food market. Independents provided much needed facilities for niche tastes. At night it stayed busy due to the pubs and restaurants. Like many Business Improvement Districts, in the summer we hosted events to activate the street.
All of these were contributing factors to the street's resillience. Lower Marsh remains economically sustainable because it has a mix of independents that keep it interesting, multiples that keep it useful, and evening uses that keep it exciting. It's the diversity - the multifunctionality - that ensures footfall.
In contrast, I've been working in places that are as far away from clone towns as it's possible to be - no multiples at all, just independently owned shops. Many of these are in more rural areas, away from the big cities. Surely these places should be faring better, having dodged the bullet of 'high street anywhere' syndrome? Well, sadly not always. Many of these places are suffering more than the high streets lumbered with an empty Debenhams, and are slowly declining into towns that are unable to meet the needs of their catchment.
There are lots of reasons for this, including the twin terrors of out-of-town and internet shopping, but it's evidence enough that independently-owned shops are not the simple answer to the woes of the high street.
In some places I have worked in, shops' opening hours reflect the lifestyle of the owner rather than customer demand; traders can be unwelcoming to tourists; stock is poorly displayed and out of date; debit cards arent accepted, there's no website or delivery. Attempts to animate the town or introduce timed street closures for events or markets are fiercely resisted on the grounds that customers need to be able to park immediately outside the shop. There is, in short, a basic disconnect between demand and supply.
And all this is fair enough, but it's not great retailing and its not good for the local economy. It seems to create a vicious circle: a poorly provided town centre offer drives custom online and out to sterile retail parks, reducing footfall in the town centre still further. Often what we're left with are hobby businesses with little intrinsic value, that will likely close when their owners retire. In places where most of the shops are manned by retirement age traders, the town faces what a colleague once described to me as an 'economic ticking time bomb'.
In other places, independent shops serve only a wealthy demographic, leaving poorer people without access to much of the stuff they need. In these places, independents are championed as providing 'local character' while many local people feel completely alienated by them.
The point is this: it is simplistic to laud independents as the simple answer to failing high streets, and it is even more inappropriate for the public sector to support independents over multiples with grants or other measures purely for the fact that they are independents alone. First and foremost, we need to remember the principles of good retailing that are being practiced in mutliples and independents alike: service, value, convenience and innovation. These principles create the experiential town centre retail that drives repeat custom.
It's true that independents often do this stuff better than multiples - owners can be highly invested, they know their customers personally and what those customers need. They can speak with authority about the provenance of their product and they know the back stories of their suppliers. The rate of eCommerce take-up among independents in 2020 shows they are quick to adapt. This is good retailing and there is always a place for that on the high street.
We know that town centre economies won't be dependent on retail alone, and only the best will survive. Other uses will proliferate in place of shopping (interestingly, the survey I referred to earlier put leisure uses above retail as the main pull for most people to the high street) and we have seen that multifunctional places are resillient places. Our efforts now need to focus on how we can empower more people to drive this forward. Community ownership, local governance mechanisms, fairer taxation, dialogue with landlords and the development of local capacity are all a part of that picture.
There's no denying that this will be a phenomenally complex task despite the peddling of easy answers.