Still being under 30 myself along with running a digital agency, I have quite a different perspective than the traditional decision makers in charge of the strategic direction of town centres. Looking at the ever declining high streets and town centres, I believe this is due to local authorities missing a trick or two when it comes to future planning with far too much focus on ‘the good old days’. We shouldn’t be trying to re-create what we once had in the town centres, instead we should be embracing the changing world we live in and create town centres worth visiting. The concept of a town centres has to change significantly to cater for the needs of the modern person.
Traditionally, town centres were the place where everyone visited on a regular basis to buy things. Whether this is visiting your green grocers, butchers, fish mongers, bakers or shopping for clothes, video games and other general things. Nowadays, we have seen these traditional shops disappear in general (we’ll ignore the ‘artisan’ movement for the moment…), with them being replaced by budget bakeries, charity shops, pound shops and other rather non-exciting businesses. People still shop in these types of shops if they are heading into the town centre anyway, but let’s be serious, no-one at all is going to go out of their way to visit one of these boring shops. With much more fun places either at home online or exciting venues to visit, why would you ever head into a town centre?
The term town centre can be misconstrued, so just to clarify, I’m talking about the town centres for…towns…not cities. Cities have a very different feel about them and cities are already thriving places in general. General town centres are very uninspiring with nothing to excite and inspire people to visit the centre. Town centres have lost their mojo.
It’s time for town centres to get their mojo back. Let’s look at the realities of retail and the changing expectations of customers. Traditional retail on the high street in town centres is never going to revive the town centres. People can purchase goods and services online for cheaper and with a wider range, so why would you ever go into the town centre to purchase goods? Going back a generation or two, it was seen as a tropical holiday to visit Blackpool in the summer. How times have changed. People of my generation think nothing about travelling a few hours for work and play with many people I know personally having migrated from various countries to work in bustling cities. The world has significantly changed. Yet town centres haven’t. They are still focused on getting people back into the town centre to shop. This is never going to happen. Looking at the many towns within Lancashire as an example, what do they offer that Manchester city centre cannot offer in greater forms? Generally speaking, nothing.
So what should town centres be focusing on then? Entertainment and lifestyle. People are looking for different, exciting and new things to do on a daily basis – so let’s give it to them. Forget traditional shopping and think about fun things that people can do. Events, festivals, special markets, food, drink, parades, celebrations and more. Let’s give people a reason to want to visit the town centres.
Lifestyle and entertainment is the only way to bring our town centres back to life and this naturally includes bridging the gap between online and offline – the way the real world works, a good blend of the two. Currently we live in a world whereby online and offline are treated as two separate things, particularly at a local level, this needs to change so that fun things are communicated in an effective way. This is what people are looking for, so let’s look about giving it to them. Artisan shops aren’t the whole solution. Independent shops, restaurants and bars are needed but they will only thrive in a bustling town centre, they aren’t going to create the buzz to drive people back in on their own.
You need to look no further than the regular events that happen throughout various town centres to see how these can work effectively at bringing people together, an awful lot of people attend these types of events throughout the country. 10k runs, Tough Mudder, Chinese New Year, bonfire night, Pride parades, carnivals, beer festivals, chocolate festivals, Christmas markets and more. Why can’t all town centres make a commitment to running an event at least monthly to give people a reason to visit, something fun, entertaining and inspiring. There is no reason why this cannot happen.
The one of the current solutions to bringing people back into town centre often comes about in the form of Business Improvement Districts which are tasked with boosting business and creating jobs. Printing a few flyers and handing them out to people who are already using the town centre is not a solution. Neither is a flashy website with information about the projects, which often aren’t going far enough and simply list businesses in the form of a directory on the website. Boring – I can find this basic information on Google. This is not enough to give people a reason to go out of their way and visit the town centres. When you compare these activities to the amount of people that congregate when fun events are put together as outlined earlier, this is how to bring people back into the town centres – give them a reason to visit, not just locally but other neighbouring towns too.
Promotion is key here though. Simply putting on an event is not enough. And by event, I mean something that is actually good. Not putting up a temporary ice rink at Christmas when there is a permanent Ice Rink less than 5 miles away, nor creating a fake beach in a town centres – I can get a flight to Spain for £40, when parking in the town centre is over £5 for the day. Yes…these are real examples of projects designed to bring people back into town centres…Difficult choice to make, fake beach in a town centre or Spain…
While on the topic of car parking though, this is an important one because this is actively putting people off visiting town centres, all for the quick gain for local authorities to use as an additional revenue stream. Remove the barriers to entry and more people will visit town centres. Online deliveries cost less than paid parking in town centres. Again, why would people visit a town centre to buy products they can purchase cheaper and more efficiently online?
Looking at promotion though, this is essential to communicate fun things with local people, both in the town and in neighbouring towns. Placing an article in the local newspaper, which no-one is reading, is not going to cut it. Digital advertising and communication are essential to making events a success. How many times have you personally found out about an event, after it has happened, even though it was in your own local town? This happens far too often. Promotion using digital channels is one of the most effective ways of communicating with local people.
Town centres must change or they will die. Personally I can honestly say that I have had no need to visit a local town centre for well over 5 years. I have passed through or visited multiple town centres less than a handful of times in recent years as I can get everything I need online or in major cities which have more to offer. When I have visited more local places, this is because of lifestyle and entertainment reasons – events, festivals, special occasions in the year, parades, food, drink and more. None of this is the traditional shopping related activities.
Have a think on this personally and look to see for yourself how your own habits have changed over recent years. For most reading this, either you are also in a similar position or you are during the transition period working towards this. Most people don’t visit the town centre for shopping activities on a regular basis anymore.
Then what do we do beyond special monthly events? How about we look to make towns more exciting and a fun place to be for people;
With so many opportunities to turn towns into vibrant places that people want to visit, there are no excuses to see failing high streets and town centres. It’s time we started to look at what the modern consumer is looking for and start to cater for this digitally enabled and socially active market. It’s time for town centres to get their mojo back.