Over the last few months I’ve read lot of predictions for the high street. There are many different theories of what will constitute ‘normal’ when it comes to future town centres and high streets, and although I’ve often been asked my opinion, I held back on commenting until now, mainly because I feel no one really knows. This is uncharted territory.

But at Totally Locally we are constantly talking to small business owners, officially and as friends. And a few themes always come to the fore:

WHAT WE KNOW:

BROWSING IS ON HOLD!   For the foreseeable future, shopping will be all about the shopper knowing roughly (or exactly) what they  want before they set off and then going to the shop and getting it in the shortest time possible. No one will feel comfortable taking their time to browse when there is a queue of people waiting for you to leave before they can come in.

SOCIAL DISTANCING It’s going to be tough. There’s no beating about the bush. For example, cafés and bars, will have to go from seating 30+ people to 10 which will make it very hard to turn a profit.

People will have to queue outside shops. And they don’t mind queuing when it’s sunny and when they are on furlough, but what about when it’s cold and rainy, and they have to get back to work in 10 minutes?! In our Yorkshire towns we have narrow footpaths, which means keeping 2 metres apart from other shoppers often constitutes walking in the middle of a busy road!
Everything will have to be reassessed. It won’t be easy – but…..

THERE ARE MANY POSITIVE THINGS BUSINESSES CAN DO:  

For many the past few months have been a time to reflect, re-asses and look to change their business model.

This goes for shoppers too. The biggest 2 changes in shopping habits have been a shift to online ordering & delivery, and a shift to support local shops and businesses.

Which means if local shops can go online, and deliver, they have a huge advantage.

ONLINE INDEPENDENTS:  Shops MUST have an online presence –  an online shop and a bricks and mortar store is a great combination, especially when a lot of customers are people living nearby.  When it comes to local customers, many use online to browse what’s available then call down to the shop. Click and collect is becoming increasingly the in-between way of shopping – ordering online and a physical connection when you collect, or that feeling of supporting your local shops even when getting a delivery.

CONNECTING WITH CUSTOMERS.  Social media is vital. Connecting with your customers is everything. Sharing what’s new in your shop, your story and the way you work is essential. It will be a long time before tourism re-starts so you will be relying on loyal, regular customers for your survival, so keeping in contact with them and sharing what’s new is so important.

COLLABORATION IS KEY.  Small businesses will have to collaborate. They will need to work together to attract people to their town. A small shop shouting on its own has no chance. No one is going to make a trip into town for one shop.  But if businesses share each other’s social media posts, recommend each other and work to create ‘a unique sense of place’ they will attract footfall. Then it’s up to each individual shop to make it as easy as possible for people to shop with them. At totally locally we teach collaboration as the key to high street resilience.

COUNCILS WILL NEED TO LOOSEN UP  Councils will need to play a key role in helping businesses. Allowing temporary street closures and relaxing laws around public space will have a huge effect on how people will use and support a town centre. Simple acts will create safe spaces where people can shop and dwell safely.

A great example is a town centre a project I am working on with Skipton Town Council. We have worked to close the traffic-busy High Street in the centre the town to facilitate Skipton Market this week. A temporary road closure has turned a busy, crowded pavement full of people plus a busy road through the middle into a huge town square, with lots of space to wander and keep safe and no traffic. It cost next to nothing, was a quick easy fix and the locals love it. If it carries on being successful it could point the way to more permanent similar measures.

PEOPLE WANT TO SUPPORT INDEPENDENT LOCAL SHOPS MORE THAN EVER. The one thing that we at Totally Locally have found from all of this, is that people really want and value their local independent shops, cafes bars and businesses. It’s what makes their towns and high streets unique, and there has been a new discovery and appreciation of these locally owned businesses who often have many local suppliers themselves.

CLOSER TO HOME MEANS A NICER LIFE.  With many organisations saying their staff will be working from home more in the future, there is a real opportunity for small towns, villages and high streets to re-engage with these people. Before this they were always away at work when local shops were open. Now they are at home, and people will want to get out of the house – even if it’s for a stroll to pick up food for dinner or a for a quick coffee at lunchtime.

And if shops, businesses, councils and customers can come together to support each other in the ways I’ve mentioned here, our towns can thrive again, possibly even more than before Covid19 hit.

And that is something to be positive about!

Chris Sands

Chris Sands is an award-winning place branding specialist, and founder of the worldwide Grass-roots High Street Movement -Totally Locally – www.totallylocally.org

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