Two news items caught my attention in the last couple of weeks. Firstly, Martin Freeman was featured in the Ashbourne News Telegraph discussing his search for a suitable site for a Starbucks in Ashbourne. He argued that without the major national brands a town like Ashbourne will wither and die. His point was based on the young people of Ashbourne demanding ‘brands’ or they won’t return when they have completed their education and commuters who live in the town will not visit the centre.
Taking the obvious vested interest to one side I suppose I concur with the strategic analysis but disagree with the solution.
I see the reason that the brands want to come to Ashbourne is because of the opportunity they see here. They see an affluent community and want to cash in on it. They are not some charitable organisation who see a needy case and want to prop it up. As an example I could point at Sudbury in Suffolk where some years ago a vacant Woolworths store was snapped up by Marks and Spencer’s who saw it as an ideal place for a food store. It lasted only a couple of years because of lack of footfall and they simply closed it down and walked away. They had no interest in reviving a high street which was not going to give them an instant return. The major supermarkets are now changing their strategy from the large format superstores to smaller format convenience outlets. Rather than pioneer their own offering and create something new they are adjusting their format and attacking the established businesses with their economies of scale. They are feeling the force of online retailers and discounters on their bottom line. Not all national chains are the same. Some are genuinely innovative and add to the town but the ‘units’ in out of town settings definitely don’t.
The second news item was the Annual High Street awards organised by the Department for Communities. Belper was the winner of the Market Town category and then the overall winner too – out of well over a hundred entries. I know Belper reasonably well. It has an excellent bed shop, a very good Indian restaurant in Elaichi, a wonderful independent cinema with the Ritz, and gigs at the Queens Head. Most importantly, for a while in my life, there was Fresh Basil the excellent deli/cafe. I worked in Nottingham for ten years and so once a week (stop laughing Wendy) I’d call in and get a sausage sandwich and a coffee on the way to work. They do magnificent takeaway sandwiches with really good local ingredients. They also do great banter alongside superb customer service and over the years I got to learn a little about the town and what was going on from the retailer’s perspective. There was lots of discussion over planning issues and events (sound familiar?). In particular there was a long running campaign to keep Tesco’s out and their passion was what originally got me thinking about the true benefit of spending money with local independent retailers.
I learned about how they got involved with the Annual Belper Food Fair which fills the streets for two days. I was also fascinated with how Belper had, off the back of the mills being a World Heritage Site, trained ambassadors throughout the town to look after visitors properly by giving them all the information about tourism, parking, and toilets. It always struck me how customer-focused the town was and how passionate they were about the High Street concept and the danger of sprawling out of the centre. Belper has had its share of new housing but has somehow managed to maintain the local feel. It is a wonderful achievement for the Town that their efforts have been recognised – they’ve won because they have created and maintained something special.
These two stories seem to be potentially contradictory. On the one hand a business expert on the East Midlands is arguing that Ashbourne needs the national brands to survive and on the other Belper (and Leek) say that the heartbeat of the High Street comes from independent retailers and community.
I feel torn on this issue. Why do I feel like I do want Aldi, Argos, Waitrose and potentially Wilko but I don’t want Starbucks or McDonalds. I think Homebase is marginal in its benefit to the town, I’m ambivalent about Fat Face, but Marks and Spencer should not have been permitted on the Waterside site. It would be lovely if there was a clear set of rules I can follow. I suppose the basics I can think of are that I don’t want any retailer to be able to bully their way in – they should abide by the existing planning rules. A second governing factor should be that there is a demand from Ashbourne residents which is independent of the retailer’s communications team. Finally there should be a focus on using retail space in the town centre wherever possible.
The winners have a clear vision for their High Street. Retailers and planners preserve the vision not drive it.