The overall number of shops in the North West has declined during the last year, with 542 stores closing during the last 12 months. Now more than ever, small retailers and owners of town centre units need to work hard to reverse this trend, writes Tony Cahill of Vivark.
As online retailers and out of town shopping centres continue to grow in popularity, the need to counteract high street decline in small towns has never been greater, particularly here in the North West where the number of shop closures is still rising, as the figures published earlier this year by PwC show. Previous efforts to counteract this situation, such as the much maligned Portas Pilot have attracted heavy criticism and provided few viable results in terms of reversing this trend.
A collaborative approach to commercial regeneration could be just what local high streets need to safe-guard against decline, and this system can be applied to any type of retail offering.
As it stands, without significant investment from interested parties in high quality retail spaces there is very little to attract businesses or shoppers into an area where modern units complete with facilities such as free, convenient parking, are readily available elsewhere.
Once shoppers move to an alternative offering, decline among a region’s retailers can become a knock-on effect, as businesses lose out on passing trade and the buzz of a busy high street. Once this decline leads to the closure of a store, it can be extremely difficult to counteract. All too often, one void unit leads to the deterioration of its neighbours, reducing the popularity of a town centre, and the broken window effect takes hold.
This is why, to counteract shoppers and businesses moving away from local commercial spaces to city centres and out of town locations, which continue to increase in footfall despite the recession, partnerships and collaborations are needed in order to pool resources and maximise return on investment. This was one of the key findings from the Win a Shop project, which Vivark first participated in last year and helped to operate again in 2015.
A group of businesses including Vivark and CBRE collaborated on the Win a Shop competition, offering a rent-free commercial space in Prescot Shopping Centre to one start-up. To win, the start-up had to convince a panel of directors and partner business representatives that its offering was a commercially viable opportunity. In return, alongside extensive mentoring, the winner would also receive a custom fit-out of the dormant retail unit from Vivark.
Furniture upcycling retailer Grace Lea was the first successful business to win the Win a Shop prize package in 2014, while theatre school and performing arts equipment provider, The Dance Shop, won the second Win a Shop competition earlier this year, which again included a fully customised rent-free retail space for one year as part of the prize.
CBRE, in conjunction with the Prescot Shopping Centre and town planning team, provided the rent-free unit for a whole year to enable the budding entrepreneur to develop her business in a sustainable way over the challenging first year of trading.
The winner also received structured business advice and support from One Ark, the Merseyside Special Investment Fund, The Women’s Organisation and Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, along with membership of Knowsley Chamber of Commerce.
The opening of these new businesses allowed the town centre to provide a more diversified offering, which has in turn led to other retailers in the centre reporting an increase in footfall. What’s more, the business’ success created employment opportunities for local residents.
Businesses can reap many benefits by working together to build a package offering outright support for sustainable start-ups from the outset. This solution could even ensure a town’s commercial property offering thrives, something the sector is keen to achieve. Working together allows businesses to pool their resources, reducing the individual investment each party has to input into the regeneration work while still reaping the same potentially high value rewards. Furthermore, this approach allows retailers and businesses to play to their strengths and take advantage of what other likeminded organisations have to offer, all while strengthening inter-business relationships.
This approach could be replicated in areas far and wide by companies big and small, depending on the high street’s requirements. Without joining forces, it is unlikely that we’ll see a dramatic reversal of fortunes for our high streets. Britain would be bland without the mix of independents and established brands that make up a great town centre. Let’s work as partners to ensure that doesn’t happen.
- Tony Cahill is executive director of facilities management company Vivark