To complement the recently published Portas Review on the British high street, we conducted two focus groups to gauge sentiment and find out what improvements could be made to make the high street more relevant to local residents. The main findings are as follows:
- People want their high street to be two (contradicting) things: a convenient place in which to run errands as quickly and with as little stress as possible, but also a relaxing and friendly environment in which to spend some time browsing, having a coffee or socialising.
- People yearn for a sense of community on the high street. Community can mean bumping into people you know and stopping for a chat; the presence of a shop that represents local residents, whether it be an Afro-Caribbean mini-mart or a kosher deli; or locally-organised events, of which people are notified by a well-situated bulletin board. Identikit high streets, graffiti and crime are some of the factors that thwart the sense of community.
- Key pet hates on the high street are low-quality fast food outlets, too many charity shops and too many ‘pound shops’. There is a general view that there is too much duplication of effort on the high street: too many of the same type of shop, and other types of shop completely missing from the high street line-up.
- Lack of parking space is a source of frustration, but so is the presence of cars and traffic on the high street. Where possible, it would be preferable for high street areas to be pedestrianised, with cheap and abundant parking provided very close by.
- People have quite an emotive negative response to the sight of empty/ boarded-up shops on their high street. Empty shops can breed more empty shops, by putting locals off spending time on the high street and therefore causing shops open for business to suffer. Lack of longevity of shops on the high street is problematic for another key reason: locals don’t get the chance to form loyalties to particular shops or shopkeepers, which takes away from the feeling of community. A possible solution to the negative vibes created by empty shops is for these to be put to good use by the local community, displaying children’s artwork or utilised for fundraising events, for example.
- People tend not to have an aversion to supermarkets, although they recognise the link between supermarket chain growth and high street decline. They highlight the cost-effectiveness of supermarket over high street shopping, and use ‘expensive’ as a word to sum up the high street shopping experience. One respondent commented on how the number of butchers that used to around locally didn’t offer a better quality of meat than a supermarket would, underlining the point that both price and quality are issues high street shops need to address.
- In particular, quality of service was highlighted as something the high street sometimes provides, and has the potential to excel at. Respondents viewed personalised services offered by independent shops as a major plus. This element of personalisation can be as modest as giving customers the opportunity to customise a sandwich order in a café, or extend to offering a delivery service or loyalty points. Specialist advice was another example of personalised service given. Salespeople in independent shops have a vested interest in accommodating the needs of the individual, much more so than chains.
- People are looking to high street retailers for innovative ideas to provide more incentive for repeat visits. In particular they thought that local retailers could join together to offer high street loyalty cards. It was felt this would encourage repeat visits to the high street, create a sense of community amongst shoppers and retailers, and help combat the price premium over supermarkets and online retailers.
Much of what we heard in our focus groups chimed with Mary Portas’ assessment of the current state of the British high street. Yet our respondents were very sceptical about some of her recommendations, principally because they felt that initiatives like the ‘National Market Day’ and ‘Town Teams’ would be tokenistic and consequently, ineffective. Practical measures such as lower business rates and improved parking policies, however, were welcomed.
Ultimately, it’s current and aspiring shopkeepers who are going to have to change to save the high street. They will need to be more attentive to the wants and needs of local residents, providing goods and services that actually have high demand and with a personal touch that cannot be replicated by the online shopping or shopping centre experience.