Nearby Alsager and Congleton were two of the small towns studied by a recent project called High Street UK 2020 (HSUK2020). It's a very clunky name for an academic-led ESRC project, which started in early 2014, one of a string of projects which have aimed to identify ways to boost retail on the UK High Street. HSUK2020's final papers appear to have been published in an academic journal at the back end of 2017, but Google News searches for "High Street UK 2020" and "HSUK2020" suggest almost no publicity in the establishment media. Although I should add that's not so unusual, for many of these Research Council-funded academic projects.
Anyway, I've only just caught up with it. Sadly their attempt to tackle Alsager doesn't seem to have been very enlightening for the academics...
"In Alsager, stakeholders agreed that future research and analysis regarding footfall, the catchment area, centre users’ behaviour and shopping preferences and residents’ perceptions of the town centre can reinforce the place branding process by elucidating town centre challenges and what type(s) of action is needed."
Erm... indeed. I think that translates into plain English as "We need more consultants". Still, they did manage to discover that the locals, albeit the sort likely to go to consultation meetings, have a view that...
"Alsager is a big village rather than a small town"
Incisive stuff. So far as I can tell that's about as far as they got in Alsager. My Google searches suggest there was no special report on Alsager, no razzmatazz press-release about how specific measures had boosted the town's retail trade. But the town, along with nearby Congleton, did input into this useful PDF which asked the people at the grassroots about what the expensive consultants' reports miss out. It's the most impressive 'output' I found from the project. Amazingly, "Health" is one of the factors previously overlooked...
"We could not find anything in the published literature relating the health of the catchment [of shoppers] to High Street performance"
Wow. What an indictment of 'experts'. Not one of them ever considered health as a factor. Not even once.
While skimming the HSUK2020's final papers, published in an academic journal for planners, I noted just a few useful nuggets. Such as confirmation that around 87% of consumers significantly change their retail habits during a big recession, and that those habits tend to stay changed for many years. For instance, some people go to coffee and tea shops more and linger longer, because that's relatively cheap, and then they 'window shop' more than they used to. Which to me suggests the question: How can you reach them in the coffee shops? Can a local shop offer a "we deliver to your table" service, co-ordinated by mobile phone GPS? Pop in the cafe for a coffee, and while you're waiting for it to be served, your phone's app pings the shop and an apprentice pops in with a smile and personally hands you the book you purchased online yesterday. Or your dry cleaning that you dropped off last week. That kind of thing. Timing would be everything, but it might be done reliably.
In terms of the HSUK2020 factors and advice it all seems to boil down to some obvious basics. I'm rewording here, summarising and translating from academic-speak and council-speak:
* understand the current identity of the town, and how it's changing.
* identify the many local barriers that your consultants may overlook.
* have a firm grasp of exactly how the town really functions, at the practical level.
* find out what the actual experience of visiting the town is, at a variety of levels.
* find out what the actual experience of selling in the town is, at a variety of levels.
* work out how to survey 'the unreachable' users of the town, including those who've stopped visiting and traders who are 'too busy to talk'.
* work out what the needs of local people are, and how to serve them better. That includes people who spend very little.
* crunch the Big Data, including data on what shopkeepers used to call 'passing trade', for trends and opportunities.
* encourage people in the town to see the ongoing global changes in retail markets and technologies as opportunities.
* expand the range of independent shops and non-retail uses.
* consult local people on any town re-branding, and especially on extensions in opening hours or evening trading.
* avoid the "fast and easy solutions" - a shiny new town logo, a simplistic appeal to big spenders, a new mailing brochure with some coupons at the back.
* help to refresh the grass-roots organisations that can encourage change in the town.
* establish a range of new partnerships, especially among those who can help break bureaucratic and other log-jams.
To which I'd add:
* get better staff and management in High St. retail. Grumpy staff are a huge factor in the current unattractiveness of the High St., and in pushing people toward online shopping. So much so that you wonder if some retailers do it deliberately, because you're more profitable to them online.
* pair humdrum sub-regional shop managers with people based in other areas, areas where the shops have already adapted to the latest retail trends.
* shrink the High St. area by moving all the outskirts shops inward, so the town centre is not strung out across two or three miles of walking (that's pock-marked by empty shops and grot). Convert the outskirts roads back to housing.
* bring all the shops together within a single website and/or Facebook group. Non-spammy, properly curated kind-of like a magazine, and full of 'added value' rather than PR fluff.
* add lots of really nice benches to sit on for free. With proper backs to them. Cafes may hate it, the police may frown and fret about drunks/druggies congregating, but the pensioners will adore you. If drunks/druggies are a real problem after noon, then work out ways to have benches put out only at certain times of day.
* have someone sprightly and eager who is dedicated to constantly going round picking up every scrap of litter and bit of broken glass, including along all footpath and cycleway approaches to the town centre.
* totally ban all chuggers and similar, don't just restrict them to certain days.
* remove 'plastic and tat' type shop-fronts, replace them with restored authentic shop-fronts if possible.
* rediscover and revive old long-lost traditions in the town. Who knew, for instance, that Congleton used to have a tradition of "ringing the chains"? In which the local monks would race around the town with strings of huge bells on them, to "announce to the town the arrival of the ‘wake’, an August holiday fair". Surely that could be imaginatively adapted for modern times, and revived?