While many high streets across the UK have taken a massive hit with the growth of online retailers, one group of independent businesspeople in York has bucked the trend with their innovative marketing plan.
Retailers on Bishopthorpe Road knew they had to do something special when the once-bustling high street lost many shops to the recession. The situation was so bad that by 2008, one-fifth of the shops were empty, and a number of others were barely hanging on.
When the post office (once the hub of the community) closed down, local councillor Johnny Hayes knew it was time for drastic measures. As the co-owner of Frankie and Johnny’s kitchenware shop, he admitted he thought this spelled the end of the road for everyone.
However, rather than accepting what seemed inevitable, the traders formed a plan to pull the high street back from the brink. First, a new cafe, The Pig and Pastry, opened. It was run by local owners, who knew plenty of people, understood what they wanted and worked hard to create a popular eating and meeting place.
© Rusana / Adobe Stock
Then, seeing there was hope for even new businesses, Andy Shrimpton, of the Cycle Heaven bike shop, approached Hayes with an idea. Both men have lived and worked in York for more than 30 years and decided to spearhead an action plan to bring Bishopthorpe Road back to life.
Shrimpton's idea was the result of visits to Copenhagen in Denmark, where he had been impressed by the sense of neighbourhood and community. The two retailers came up with a simple plan to instil the same sense of community in York.
The idea was to bring all the shops together as a community, setting up a new group website and relaunching with a street party. Hayes described it as a "eureka" moment. They arranged for the road to be closed to traffic for the event, stalls were set up in the street and bunting was added to create a festive atmosphere.
To their delight, around 3,000 people turned up. Entertainment was provided by live bands, people started dancing and the butcher was giving away free burgers to revellers. Hayes said he couldn't believe the amount of goodwill the event created and recalled thinking to himself, "We're going to be all right."
He was right - today, Bishopthorpe Road has a real buzz about it, with a host of local shops and cafes attracting shoppers and diners. People are stopping for mid-morning coffee and having a chat over homemade pastries and cakes, or indulging in a special Sicilian ice cream, courtesy of Beppe Lombardo, owner of food outlet Trinacria.
He has further plans to attract people to the high street by staging more events, such as a dog show, street Olympics and displays of street art.
There's an official name for the strategy adopted by the traders of York. It's labelled a "sticky street" by urban planners - a description coined by the Canadian planner, Brent Toderian. He realised that planning conversations always revolved around the movement of cars and people in the town centre.
Engineers seemed to think it was a measure of success when more cars and pedestrians could be moved through an area as quickly as possible, but Toderian realised very few conversations took place about how all these people would actually use the streets.
He believes lingering is the definition of a successful shopping street, so it's important to consider what will make them stay when they get there. The name "sticky street" defines a street where people are encouraged to stick around, rather than just rushing in, doing a bit of shopping and rushing off again.
A think-tank at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (a Swedish research institute) agrees something must be done to save our high streets. It encourages planners to "embrace new planning approaches" to tackle the threat posed by online shopping and other economic factors, such as the continuing uncertainty over Brexit in the UK.
Retailers need to try everything in their power to persuade shoppers to "stick around", as no-one wants to see a high street with empty, boarded-up shops, which have fallen victim to fly posting and vandalism. Once an area starts to look run down, it's the beginning of a downward spiral - as no-one wants to open a business in a tatty-looking street.
Regardless of how online sales are increasing, the high street is still an important part of Britain's retail economy and is a focal point for the local community. People can foster a sense of belonging that isn't possible with an e-commerce store.
The high street needs all the help it can get. According to research by Ipsos Retail, 2018 was hardly a "memorable" year for the UK retail industry. At best, businesses "flat lined".
A survey of 3,000 UK adults by Empathy Broker revealed 51% of consumers preferred shopping online, rather than in physical shops. The research showed that 55% of respondents said they shopped more online now than 12 months ago. The 25 to 34-year-old age group shops most online - on average, they make a purchase online eight times a month.
A study in November 2018 by accountancy firm PWC revealed around 14 shops were closing every day across the UK. A massive 2,700 shops had ceased trading in the preceding six months, with fashion and electrical shops suffering most in the battle against online competition.
London was the worst affected region of the UK, while Wales in general was faring better than anywhere else. To counter the closures, only 1,569 new shops were launched, which meant the high street had lost a total of 1,131 stores in six months.
Britain’s best high street
According to the Talking Retail Awards in November 2018, Britain's best high street was Crickhowell High Street, in the Brecon Beacons. It received the accolade after launching an ambitious community initiative to attract more shoppers.
The Totally Locally Campaign saw more than 100 local shops and businesses unite to promote each other's services and run joint marketing initiatives. The campaign spurred 267 local people to jointly buy and renovate a former pub, the Corn Exchange, transforming it into three shops with residential flats above.
Crickhowell High Street is also the location of Wales' first Zero Waste shop, which supports the Plastic Free Crickhowell initiative aimed at reducing waste.
While the high street is fighting back, no-one says it will be easy - but if traders follow the advice of retailers who have brought their shopping area back from the brink, it appears there's hope for everyone with some careful planning.
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