Clone high streets. We all know at least one. The rather soulless omnipresence of Zara, H&M and Primark has layered town centres across the country with predictability. At the same time, the vacancy rate of 11.2 per cent for retail units nationwide is testament to the feeling of emptiness in what used to be the hearts of many UK towns.
Some retail giants cut and run to out-of-town parks with ample parking that have nothing unique about them; others, like Woolworths and Homebase, stuttered out altogether. Charity shops and discount booze stores occasionally plug the gaps. Overall, many British town centres are devoid of the character the once enjoyed.
Admittedly, it’s not the best time to be a high street retailer in the UK. The comfort of online shopping, sucking in 17 per cent of total revenue, is increasingly drawing people off the streets. Those best equipped to battle the trend are ironically doing so by foregoing their own bricks-and-mortar sales to boost their online presence; John Lewis now makes a quarter of its revenue online and Tesco has jumped to second place on the podium for total online sales, beaten to the top spot only by Amazon. The persistent uncertainty surrounding Brexit is doing none of them any favours. Journalists and pundits philosophise, slightly melodramatically, over the “death of the high street”.
In York, it’s a different story. True, around 50 city centre units were vacant last summer. But the city is emphatically fighting back. Its tangle of charming streets, paved with local stone and jostling their way around several picture postcard squares, gives it a great head start over less distinctive towns. Its medieval history lends itself to an abundance of small stores rather than big shop floors. Against a backdrop of poor performance in the retail sector, independent businesses are thriving.
Jo Asquith bought Frankie & Johnny’s Cookshop on Bishopthorpe Road in October last year. A mix of locals and visitors keeps trade busy. Jo believes that: “Our customers like that we provide a personal service they can’t get online or in big shops; it’s a different shopping experience entirely.” She told me her confidence setting up in York was in part thanks to the feeling of community among independent shop owners in the city.
“We have a great relationship with other small businesses. If we don’t have the exact product a customer needs, we can probably recommend another independent store where they can find exactly what they’re looking for,” Jo explained.
Frankie & Johnny’s is a member of Indie York, a small business association aiming to help shoppers take advantage of the city’s impressive diversity by offering an online directory and map of independent stores. Users can browse not only small retail businesses which they might otherwise not stumble upon, but can also pick out independent eateries, bars, cafés, art galleries and creative spaces. Johnny Hayes is the manager of the scheme.
“Independent shops now make up over 65 per cent of stores in York and so are crucial to the high street,” he asserted. The scheme has helped forge a sense of community; on a morning when several members found their shop floors submerged in flooding, other members turned out in force to deal with the damage.
York’s retail appeal goes beyond the stores housed year-round. Ten times a year, as part of the Made in Yorkshire scheme, an airy marquee plays host to local sole traders who offer handmade products which are sourced, fashioned and perfected within the region.
Unlike brand names proposing the same, foreseeable range of products in every store, initiatives such as this are a rare celebration of local craftsmanship which offer an element of discovery and an incentive to make the trip into town. The anonymity and emptiness of many British high streets should lead us to call their purpose into question. Are they just a physical framework for anyone willing to pay the rent? Or should they also be the centre of a community, a magnet for locals and tourists alike?
Large brands can bring value for money, convenience and certainty for customers. But as is the case in York, an active drive to promote independent stores provides a more personal experience for shoppers, an impression of uniqueness and a reason to spend time in town.
Beside this, ordering in a few clicks is hardly a substitute. And if H&M flooded, I wouldn’t bet on staff from Zara and Primark being shuttled along to help.