COMMENT: 2019 marked a new chapter in our nation’s high street story

How 2019 marked a new chapter in our nation’s high street story (Opinion)

Over the course of the last year, we visited high streets across the UK to see and hear first-hand how small retailers were combating the business challenges 2019 had brought. There’s no denying that amidst the backdrop of big chain closures and continued economic uncertainty, it was a tough year for retailers.

But what really impressed me is the demonstration of strength and resilience keeping our high streets alive.

The government-run Great British High Street Awards, in partnership with Visa, recognises and celebrates local achievements on our high streets. As part of the awards, we had the unique opportunity to gain insight from a variety of high street businesses: from butchers and greengrocers to hairdressers and florists. In each place, the judges had the pleasure of meeting the inspirational shopkeepers behind the shop windows, all of whom are dedicated to providing an important service to their communities.

READ MORE: South Wales village Treorchy nabs High Street of the Year award

These are the unsung heroes who make our local high streets such special places to shop and convene. There’s a lot of support from small business owners to ensure our high streets not only survive but thrive, and we can all learn from their creative approaches to making this happen.

There are incredible stories that showcase innovative uses of new technology to reengage customers, both locally and further afield. Local businesses in Northwich, for instance, have worked with their Business Improvement District to initiate a multimedia Visit Northwich platform, and used social media videos to promote individual traders on the high street.

With up to 4000 views per video, this has given Northwich retailers a megaphone to promote their business and highlight what they can offer for local residents. What has started with the Business Improvement District has evolved into a town-wide phenomenon, with business owners themselves producing social media videos to become better connected to their customers through social media.

“There’s a lot of support from small business owners to ensure our high streets not only survive but thrive”

We know that local high streets are important for a sense of cause and pride and, Visa research shows, that half of consumers say that visiting their local high street gives them a sense of pride in their local community. Considering the importance of the high street itself, community events and festivals are a tried and tested way to attract people from within and beyond the area to bring new faces to the high street.

Daventry provides a great example of this. In the last two years, the town has hosted as many as 16 festivals and is rapidly becoming known as a festival town. The eclectic events range from an Arts Festival to celebrations for Armed Forces Day, attracting people who have never visited the high street before. With the aim of increasing footfall, local retailers have also set up smaller initiatives such as “Nappies & Natter” which provides a social environment for mothers with young children.

Another development we’ve seen on high streets is the move towards more sustainable products and services. In fact, research Visa conducted before Christmas showed that four in 10 consumers were actively looking to be more sustainable when it came to the goods that they were buying.

“There are brilliant examples of high streets overcoming the challenges facing them.”

Hitchin Town Centre, which is shortlisted in the Great British High Street Awards’ Champion category, is a good example of a high street that has taken the lead on sustainability – first achieving Fairtrade town status in 2006, and more recently adding eco-credentials. Cafes are turning ground coffee into brisket logs for wood burners, which are then bought by local businesses for a sustainably-led profit. Initiatives such as those in Hitchin are filling this demand for a more sustainable approach to retail while helping firms diversify into new areas that they never thought would be possible or lucrative.

Going from high street to high street and speaking to the locals, it is clear to me that the closure of larger retail chains and long-standing retailers has caused an uneasiness about empty units and the knock-on effect this has on attracting footfall. However, there are brilliant examples of high streets overcoming the challenges facing them.

For example, Rochdale is offering incentives for filling empty stores, leading to a much greater uptake in new business set up and the subsequent positive impact on atmosphere and community spirit. Appearance is also key. Visa research finds that physical appearance is within the top three concerns for consumers when visiting their local high street.

It’s often said that our high streets are in crisis, or that they face an existential threat. But from what we’ve seen on this journey, I believe the high street story of 2019 is one of transformation.

Jeni Mundy is Managing Director, UK & Ireland at Visa and also Chief Judge of Great British High Street Awards

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