Dale Roberts, former industry advisor and local Lib Dem candidates calls for creative thinking and the reinvention of local high streets.
Whilst there is still a fair way to go, we are all starting to think about our communities after Covid and there is an understandable nervousness about what it means for local high streets. The high-profile collapse of Debenhams and Arcadia at the end of last year though, is not, as many have already commented, simply as a result of the sudden, rapid increase in online spending. Our needs have changed significantly over the last decade and retailers have not always responded to what it is we really want today.
For example, research from BearingPoint shows that whilst there has been a sharp increase in comfort and confidence with online shopping, we all want more from retailers than a website and free delivery. We want facilities, services and experiences that can only be delivered locally. This means rethinking not just major cities but smaller cities, towns and even the most local of our high streets.
These changes could create exciting opportunities for local traders that we thought had long since been eliminated by big business. I have worked with the Unilever organisation on a number of major projects over the years. During my most recent engagement with them a senior director shared that they longer think of their competition as other so-called consumer packaged goods (CPG) businesses. Their competitors, today, are a growing number of small but specialist retailers. Online commerce has all but eliminated the advantage that scale has historically afforded Unilever, Proctor and Gamble and former Woking resident SABMiller.
This moving landscape of competitiveness and consumer needs is as much an opportunity, if not more so, as it is a threat to our high streets and local business.
Fledgling entrepreneurs with a passion for artisanal food and drink can base themselves closer to home rather than in major cities such as London and Birmingham. Our increased confidence in online retail means that their business can be based where they want it to be not where their customers are.
National retailers could also invest in even our most local high streets. There are some things that we simply can't do online, or at least not do them well. A local presence means that major retailers can provide a seamless online and high street experience by providing facilities such as physical fitting rooms to ease the return process for the customer and ensure they, as a retailer, can return pristine product to stock.
Industry commentators are sharing ideas such as these right now in a growing need for retail reinvention. A rapidly changing environment presents many opportunities for retail, shoppers and local authorities to reconsider the high street in a way that is good for communities and good for business. This means re-thinking access, facilities and how we respond responsibly and sustainably.
The high streets in Woking and in the villages around us are no longer a simple matter of parking provision and collecting business rates. Local authorities will need to become much more creative, thoughtful and agile post pandemic. And it will all need to start with understanding the real current and future needs of local residents and local businesses.
Have your say on what you want from your local high street in our Lib Dem "Your Ideal Local High Street Survey".
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