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Business in the Community sets out to save the UK's struggling high street

High Street

At The Drum’s Plan it Day and Do it Day events this year, Business in the Community is calling on the marketing industry to help bring together businesses across the UK to turnaround the decline of the high street while tackling a range of issues that are essential to creating a fairer society and a more sustainable future.

In recent years Britain’s high streets have struggled to deal with a steady decline in footfall as more people turn to online shopping and eating out as a means for spending their money, leaving little to splash on the high street.

The source of the problem is not entirely down to the financial pressures on consumers during economically uncertain times nor is it a direct consequence of Brexit. Much of the struggle is a result of a systemic shift in how people shop now as online retail continues to entice shoppers with convenience and lower prices.

According to Ipsos’s retail traffic index, Newcastle’s high street has been among one of the worst hit. In April this year it revealed that Newcastle’s shopper numbers were down by 9.95 per cent over the past financial year. This is closely followed by Stoke-on-Trent, which suffered a 8.1 per cent decline in its high street footfall during the same period.

Retailers are feeling the consequences too, with companies such as Poundland pointing to the lack of shoppers on the high street as the reason behind slowing sales. Earlier this year fashion retailer Primark suffered its first drop in UK underlying sales for 12 years, while Marks & Spencer and Next also reported downbeat trading.

The demise of BHS and Austin Reed have served as a watermark for the gravity of the situation but they are only the most visible of the casualties. By May this year there had been more casualties than the whole of 2015 with 14 more brands departing the high street in an exodus that affected 989 stores and over 20,000 employees across the UK.

What’s more, all this has happened as disposable household income is said to have risen as the median household income and GDP per person recovered last year to pre-recession levels. The situation has led the British Retail Consortium (BRC) to predict that thousands of shops and almost 1 million retail jobs could go by 2025.

This duel crisis of businesses struggling with sales and the prospect of mass job losses throughout the UK is where Business in the Community comes in.

The business-led charity is on a mission to save Britain’s high streets by mobilising businesses such as Marks and Spencer, Boots and Greggs to work together across a range of issues which can help the communities they operate in and in turn secure their future.

Its strategy is based on the recommendations from the Portas Review, the government’s independent review into the state of the UK’s high street, which called for urgent action to be taken to ensure the survival of something which it describes as “fundamental to the fabric of Britain”.

Jane Pritchard, enterprise and culture director at Business in the Community (BITC), is all too aware of the bleakness of the situation and has been working to help turn things around with BITC’s Healthy High Streets programme. The project has been running for two years now and in that time Pritchard has witnessed first-hand the potential results made possible when high street names work together in their communities.

The programme has brought together a number of key partners including the town BID, local landlords, retail expertise, and providers of financial and legal services. One such high street which benefited from this is Loughborough where the programme created a support package for new startups which included free consultations with both a business banking manager and a solicitor. Customer service and social media training were also provided free of charge.

“We’ve been working with big brands on the high street to bring them together with town centre managers and planners to create strategies which can ultimately increase the footfall and deal with the issue of empty properties and how can they create jobs locally,” says Pritchard.

Through its work BITC has found that one of the most common reasons high street shops close is because they haven’t approached the planning for the town in the right way and this can be avoided when businesses work together with the same aim of supporting the high street.

“One of things we’ve done which has been really successful is creating this role called high street champions. This role has been taken up by some of the staff at the bigger stores and involves them working with other businesses in the town centre partnership and getting them really actively involved in implementing these plans which have included things like local car park initiatives where we’ve taken unused spaces and turned them into carparks.”

BITC have also have ran competitions with businesses to win free advertising in the towns which focus on bus ad space around key periods of the year such as Christmas. Other strategies employed include helping businesses and towns create their own campaigns promoting their high streets.

“The work has provided lots of evidence to show the initiatives have been working but we’ve only been able to do this on a relatively small scale in just 100 high streets. It’s incredibly intensive for us to go round and speak to a small number of companies so what we’re looking for at Plan it Day is work with a team of creatives, present the evidence, talk about the work that we’ve done and ask them to help us create a campaign that would inspire sat least 100 more new businesses to get involved and support the high street locally.”

Think you've got what it takes to work on Business in the Community’s challenge? Then sign up for Plan It Day here and help The Drum prove that marketing can change the world.

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Tony Connelly

I cover media, marketing and sponsorship news within the sports industry. This includes breaking news as well as writing feature pieces with insights from experts in the sports marketing world.

All by Tony