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  • Writer's picturebenstephenson

//Street markets and the local economy

Updated: Nov 30, 2018

Case Study: Lower Marsh Market, SE1

Lower Marsh Market, Waterloo

Lower Marsh Market dates back hundreds of years and at one stage it was the longest in London, stretching almost a mile. Hidden behind Waterloo Station on a street that until recently felt unchanged for decades, the market's fortunes have fluctuated.

In this blog I explain how the WeAreWaterloo Business Improvement District turned the market around, and identify examples of best practice from both the commercial and community models that helped us.

By the time WeAreWaterloo, my former Business Improvement District took Lower Marsh Market on in 2014, it was a ghost of what it had been, reduced to a handful of stalls and selling goods no-one had much of a use for. Changes in shopping habits and local demographics were key factors in its decline. In picking up the keys to the market shed, the BID set out on a journey to learn from the best examples of the two main market types: the municipal and the commercial.

Municipal markets are traditionally run through a council licencing or enforcement team, with the key trader interface focused around legislation, monitoring and enforcement when perhaps they should be transferred to the regeneration or economic development teams and treated as a driver of the local economy. On the positive side, the municipal market protects traders, providing them with lifetime licences and consulting with the community where changes need to be made. Prices are low and this encourages entry-level entrepreneurship from within the local community.

Contrast the cash-strapped borough with the management style of the new commercial operators. Places like Hawker House by London Union have focused hard on brand, amplifying their traders' to the benefit of the collective operation. They know about look and feel, about the customer journey, and understand food trends. Crucially, they control the bars to ensure a good margin. However, there is insufficient focus on rewarding the loyalty of traders, or developing their skills.

So how did we integrate these lessons into the operation at Lower Marsh?

//Customer experience

We instigated a comprehensive review of the look and feel of the stalls, product quality, customer flow, ancillary activity, relationship with the public realm and staff culture. Just the simple addition of a few tables and chairs was transformative, both for the market's fortunes and the customer experience, and is something many markets have implemented at minimal cost.

The colours of the market were more carefully curated and our tables were sprayed with the instagram hashtags that helped to build our following, in recognition of the social media-loving millennial demographic who make up many of our customers.

Not unusually, our market manager implemented tasting meetings, auditioning prospective traders. She used the tenants in the BID's co-working space for a bit of free market research, and encouraged their comments on branding, menus and pricing. After implementing this regime the market began to reject applications, but anyone with potential received advice on branding and product, or were referred to those we knew that could help them before being permitted to reapply.

//Placing the market at the centre of the community.

Lower Marsh, like much of central London, was faced with development, including on Lower Marsh itself, a characterful Victorian and Georgian street hosting a variety of independent retailers.

Where hotel development seemed to be the order of the day in Waterloo, the concern was that the related uplift in rental values would drive out those independents that gave the street its character in the first place. Planning policy was limited in what it could do to restrict hotel development, and could do nothing about rent levels, so the BID's main lever in supporting its members was the market.

This spoke to the all-important customer experience again. The market became a centre for events, workshops, filming, general buzz. Those tables and chairs were as much about retaining a sense of bustle and activity, a place where the lunchtime crowd could immerse themselves in something other than work.

Many of the BID's events were run on Lower Marsh to ensure we could reinforce the messages of the street as the centre of the Waterloo community. This was no easy task when the prevailing opinion was that Waterloo is just an enormous train station.

Fans watch the England v Colombia match, Lower Marsh, June 2018

Development hoardings painted to enliven blank space

//Using the market to drive footfall to surrounding businesses.

We noticed early on that some of the retail began to decline alongside the market. Shops that had been on Lower Marsh for decades began to close as footfall to the market dried up; one shop shut for good in its 101st year of trading.

This drove the BID to assume responsibility for the market, on the premise that if we could drive the footfall back to a new market, our members, the shops, would eventually benefit.

With the expansion of the market came more footfall. Year-on-year it rose by 15% in 2017/18, a success which led to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government's launch of the Great British High Street Awards on Lower Marsh in September 2018. Lower Marsh was also a runner-up in the national awards in 2017.

Despite all this footfall, as any market operator will know, the relationship between shops and the traders can be a little fractious. Not all retailers would agree that increasing pedestrian traffic has impacted positively on their business.

Bricks and mortar businesses can resent the market trader's business rate exemption. Clothing shops object to the smoke from grills permeating their stock. Cafes lament the additional competition, particularly in a grab-and-go lunchtime culture.

This meant giving food businesses the use of chairs and tables to increase their covers, carefully positioning market traders so as to reduce conflict, and preventing any direct competition. But it took careful and diplomatic management.

//Treating the market as a place for enterprise, jobs and skills development.

Launching a business is a costly endeavour. A study commissioned by Geniac a couple of years ago estimated that most start-ups burn through over £22k in their first year; but a market is a low-cost, low-risk way to test your product, and a place like Lower Marsh, run by a BID, should be known as a place to try new things out.

As the market became more stable, we were finally in a position to develop training packages with a local FE college to help traders develop their knowledge of a range of subjects, from social media, to brand, to bookkeeping, to English. To develop the pipeline still further, we worked with local schools for whom we hosted an entrepreneurs challenge, supporting them to develop a product to sell on the market.

Equally, the BID's recruitment service, aimed at identifying local people for jobs within the BID was used to find traders' assistants and market set-up staff. As of 2016 the market began to include local employment among its KPI's and the figure has been steadily rising, which in turn reduces risk at the market.

Today we remain committed to the concept of a London Markets School, to ensure markets can support entrepreneurs at all stages of their business journey and have made representations to the London Markets Board ahead of the 10th International Public Markets Conference in 2019. We want to be seen the exemplar for this type of capacity building in a post-Brexit London.

Waterloo Food Month debates series

//Treating the market as an opportunity for inclusion.

One of the key concerns about Lower Marsh following its transformation into a street food market was the lack of provision for local residents, and particularly those living on low incomes. This situation compounded a problem they face whereby the vast majority of retail in the area was aimed at the 100 million annual commuters who pass through Waterloo Station.

The BID aimed to address this in a number of ways, launching a flea market on Saturdays pitched at local residents who wanted to sell goods without any ongoing commitment. We also gave stalls free to members of the community or charities running consultations or collecting, and we lent out our stalls to community groups who wanted to use them for community events away from the market.

We gradually addressed the commodity mix to ensure that the weekday market was less focused on a street food monoculture, and so we could offer more choice to the local resident population.

Finally, we improved governance structures to ensure local people could become involved in the running of the market, developing an advisory board constituted from residents, traders, retailers and others. They will have a clear say on the direction the market takes in the next period of its development.

//Generating a surplus to reinvest.

Lower Marsh Market was run as a not-for-profit when the BID took it over, but the generation of a surplus remained vital to keep the market moving forward. It meant we could implement new initiatives such as busking spots, herbaceous planters and a drinking fountain as well as investing in traders, events and community programmes. We improved social media and PR, and future projects will see an entrance archway built, and lighting stretched across the street - there will never be an end to the improvements we can make.


Every market is different, but the principles above guided our hand when we developed ours. It may be that there are a few here that you could use, or you could let us know any that have worked for you.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues in this article, or talk about plans for your market, get in touch.


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