The high street needs collaboration
By Adam Sweeney
It’s all very well rebooting individual retailers—but one brand does not a high street make. To save this artefact of our nation, we need retailers brave enough to collaborate.
One of the UK’s few growing high streets is Bishopsthorpe Road in York. Affectionately known as ‘Bishy Road’, this once-thriving Dickensian high street had become desolate, less and less footfall, fewer and fewer shops - a story common across the country.
The turnaround began in 2010, when a few plucky store owners banded together to ‘relaunch’ the street. They created a website and an event, setting out stalls and a gala.
To their surprise, 3000 people turned up—a sign to both owners and locals that their little street mattered. An individual store couldn’t have achieved this—the collective power and the signal of dramatic change galvanised a whole community.
One high street was turned around by a small group of independent store owners working together. Imagine what could be achieved through a collective effort with the resources and scale of our national retailers!
Kickstarting this kind of change requires leadership, and a start-small-scale-fast ambition. Here’s how it’d look.
A limited group of retailers that represent customers’ favourite categories—and brands that are synonymous with the UK high street, with presence across the country—band together. Let’s say for example, M&S, WH Smiths and Dixons Carphone Warehouse, who’ve all faced store closures but remain trusted brands in UK shoppers’ minds. They’d select 2-3 different, struggling high streets from across the UK, work together with local stakeholders to shape the challenges, and then take a test-and-learn approach to solving these challenges.
They’d start by getting deep under the skin of customers and locals, understanding what jobs they need their high street to do. They’d actively involve the community in the change, including landlords, councils and lenders, galvanising them to action. And they’d take an iterative, test-and-learn approach to designing a better high street experience—with lessons that could be quickly exported to other, similar high streets around the country. Crucially, together they’d signal dramatic change, and have signs of that change really happening—fast.
Each retailer can take actions to serve their customers, but ultimately the high street isn’t built on individual businesses. The domino effect of failing retailers reminds us that these businesses depend on one another.
The first step is small. It’s for the retailers who recognise that the high street has to dramatically evolve to show their leadership—showing customers that they believe the high street is worth saving too.
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