Here we are folks, I'm about to get on my soapbox for 5 minutes. Settle in, it's going to be a fun one.
There's no denying that times have changed, online shopping has become the norm for a reason; it's convenient, it puts products and brands from around the world in your lap and we don't have to move an inch. As I share the following thoughts on the high-street I hope I don't sounds like an Amish evangelist - technology is amazing, online shopping is great. But as rents and business rates soar and footfall and shopping in physical stores decline the hearts of our towns and villages are on the line. I don't champion the importance of the high-street out of a nostalgia for a simpler time where I could know the name of my green-grocer (although that does sound cool) I already know my mechanic far better than anyone should. I believe high-streets are important because they're a communal space, they can be a place where the soul of a town can be properly expressed, a place where you can bump into people and have a real life, face to face conversation. Our high-street can encourage tourism, provide a canvas for the arts and inspire us. For the sake of this article I'll largely be referring to Chichester as I'm a bit passionate about this little town but I think the principles will apply elsewhere.
Chichester is a beautiful town with a ton of history, a really really big church and it's nestled between the south downs and south coast. What a combo! Countryside and the sea and yet show someone around this place and you could find yourself in any other mid sized market town. It's a bit dull. Instead imagine a town where you find little independent gems down little side streets, or God forbid, the main high-street. A town that celebrates independents and its own local identity. And it can be done, it just takes a shift in culture, a shift in mindset. Towns like Hebden Bridge, Lewes and Totnes manage it (we don't have to go full hippy, don't worry) but it does require some effort on our part and some willingness to do things a little differently.
So here we go, 5 foolproof solutions to making the high-street more interesting.
1. Put your money where your mouth is.
I chuckled away to myself reading the typically ridiculous comment section on a local article on the news that Chichester Christmas Market was not happening this year (FYI it is, its just changed hands). It was filled with people bemoaning the lack of independents or diversity in Chichester, which is cool, its half the battle. However, if thats how you feel, you also have a responsibility to support and give your money to small businesses. And you know what, sometimes thats going to mean spending a little more. There, I said it. If for no other reason than the economies of scale is never going to be in favour of small independents. Our t shirts cost £25, if you're looking for a cheaper t shirt you will surely find it. But I can guarantee you ours will be different, it will tell a story and be better quality and lovingly printed by hand. I want to say at this point that talking like this can often sound a bit defensive and whiney and we all know whiners are wieners and I just want to make it super clear I don't mean to sound entitled or like I'm owed something just because I'm a small business owner. It's my job to make that offer as desirable as possible to you, you owe me nothing (yay for free market capitalism?!). I'm just pointing out that when I give out about a shop like David Messam closing but I'm actually buying my DIY stuff at Wickes I probably just need to get back in my box or change my consumer behaviour.
It's also not your job to spend money at any old independent out of duty but if you think the coffee at Common Grounds is banging but Costa Coffee is nearer lets be more pro-active about going to Common Grounds. Agreed? Excellent.
2. Be an absolute turd to your local MP/council.
Councils have a difficult job, no doubt. But equally something needs to be done about making empty retail units (which are in abundance) easily accessible to pop-up shops, independents or anything other than Starbucks.
Chichester District Council did a press release announcing a pop-up shop officer/liaison/machine but I can find no evidence of such a role or support as yet. This is a brilliant plan if it's more than just a headline and here are some ideas for this to actually practically work.
- cut and paste stock licences to simplify legal procedures.
- business rate relief to encourage more high-street diversity and incentivise pop-up shops for landlords.
- deposit matching from council for greater protection for landlords.
Imagine walking down East Street with new and interesting shops that can't be found anywhere else. I'm salivating into my keyboard. ajnojanbihdbasksajndo.
So to see this happen I think we need to wield the pitchforks and get in the faces of councillors (in a friendly-ish way) and our local MP. Let's go full French and burn cars in the street and pour our milk down the drain or something. I think my point is, let's be less passive.
Maybe we, or you or maybe even I need to just get off our/my asses/ass and help make Chichester/your local town the town we think it could be. Want to put on a market? Do it. Ridiculously fun charity event? Do it. Peddler's cart - DEFINITELY. Anything other than public samba bands, but that's my own personal beef.
When we ramble and spitball ideas over pints, lets follow through. Chichester Design Collective is an awesome example of people coming together to support and promote creative businesses in the area and amazing things have already come out of it (like the South Coast Journal) and it's probably going to take over the world. So join it or do your own thing.
4. Get your butt down to Drapers Yard.
Oh boy. These guys know the score and Kay is a legend. A mini emporium dedicated to small businesses. If you live in the Chichester area head on down. Particular shout out to our pals at Refilled who are fighting single use plastics with their dry store refillery (and now coffee). Yay.
5. Only buy your clothes from Gnarly Tree...
Agreed? That way we can have a permanent presence in the high-street, grow, go public and eventually have a shop in every town in England... oh wait.
Gnarly Tree-ers assemble and fight for your high-street, walking through an amazon warehouse just isn't as fun; mainly because its filled with underpaid staff urinating in plastic bottles.