Revived town centres will put fun back into shopping
A combination of wi-fi technology and a vibrant night-time economy will help the High Street see off the out-of-town challenge, says Glyn Roberts
In spite of the grim – almost daily – reports of declining sales and increasing number of shop closures, you could be forgiven for thinking that our retail sector and town centres are in terminal decline.
However, there are grounds to be optimistic that, with the right change, retail revival in radically new town and city centres is possible.
A British Retail Consortium survey has shown that the biggest decline in footfall is not in town centres, but in out-of-town shopping centres.
That's not to say all is right with our town centres. It's not. But, far from being the future of retail, out-of-town belongs to the past; the future will be radically new town and city centres, with a real mix of retail, a vibrant hospitality sector and, above all, making shopping fun.
The Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, recently launched the High Street Taskforce report, which includes many key Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) policy priorities.
Speaking at the launch, the minister said: "The nature of retail has changed in recent years and the long-term challenge is how we move from retail-led towns and cities to developing their value as multifunctional social centres that vitalise our High Streets, not just in daylight hours, but also to maximise our evening economy."
As the minister rightly says, town centres can only work if retail and hospitality sectors work together to make them destinations for shoppers. This is why NIIRTA and Pubs of Ulster are working in partnership to try to reach this goal.
If we are to achieve this revival, we need to see new thinking – not just in terms of government, but – more importantly – in a change of mindset among retailers.
Firstly, the Executive needs to establish a regional Northern Ireland Town Team, chaired by the DSD minister, to bring together relevant government departments and key organisations to take forward policy changes in relation to planning, car-parking, rates, regeneration and, above all, establish an effective shop vacancy strategy.
We believe that this strategy should include the creation of retail incubator units to support the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Local councils also need to develop retail development strategies for town centres and give greater support for more pop-up shops.
NIIRTA also wants to see a 'Small Shop Saturday' across every village, town and city. We envisage this scheme being similar to the US version and would not just give more support to local traders, but would also recognise their unique contribution to the economy and local community.
However, the biggest change of all has to be within retail itself. To succeed in modern retail demands a constant process of innovation, re-invention and change.
It is embracing new technology, not just a webpage, but reaching new customers through social media and smartphones. NIIRTA would like to see every town and city centre in Northern Ireland create a promotional app for traders to 'push' offers to customers on a regular basis directly to their smartphone or tablet.
With the increasing availability of wi-fi in town centres and app technology changing all the time, there is no reason why this could not be established.
The horse meat crisis also opens up huge opportunities for local butchers and grocers, who are not only trusted, but have a short supply chain and source the majority of their meat and poultry locally.
With a combination of new technology, world-class customer service, a wide retail choice, strong cafe culture and night-time economy, our town centres can offer something radically different to consumers in a way out-of-town supermarkets and shopping centres cannot. Making shopping fun and something to look forward to in 21st-century town centres is, with the right change, something we can achieve.