Andrew Vine: Yorkshire street in the vanguard of a revolution in how we shop

A shop on Bishopthorpe Road, York, dressed for the Tour de France
A shop on Bishopthorpe Road, York, dressed for the Tour de France
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LET’S hope that the enterprising and enthusiastic shopkeepers of Bishopthorpe Road in York have seen an upswing in trade since their parade was named Great British High Street of the Year.

And let’s also hope that their example of working together, imagination and community focus that brought them the accolade serves as an inspiration to other suburban shopping streets across Yorkshire.

The time is right for local parades of shops full of thriving independent businesses to come into their own once again, after a lean time in which they suffered because of the muscle of the supermarkets.

Look around, and it’s possible to see a renaissance of the suburban shopping street, as new businesses open and connect with the communities in which they are based.

Areas close to my home in Leeds are typical of many where shopping parades endured a tough few years of dwindling trade aggravated by the economic slump.

Shops closed as owners either retired or threw in the towel because they could not match the supermarkets on price.

Shuttered shopfronts lent an air of dilapidation to once-busy parades, but now that is changing.

New owners with fresh ideas and admirable drive to succeed have taken over and the shops have come back to life.

A trio of artisan bakeries, a fishmonger, greengrocer, cafes, galleries and a retro housewares shop have all sprung up, and the parades are buzzing once again. All the new businesses seem to be doing well, and are attracting loyal customers who live within walking distance, just as the shops on Bishopthorpe Road do.

One reason for the upturn in the suburbs’ fortunes is undoubtedly the improving economy, but chat to the shopkeepers and their customers and it is clear that other factors come into play.

Independent traders tap into a growing recognition of the importance of localism amongst shoppers, a “use it or lose it” realisation that if they want quality shops on their doorstep, the businesses need to be supported.

That has been a truth long known to Yorkshire’s rural communities, where so many villages have made determined efforts to support their local shop or post office to keep it open.

But that outlook has been slower to take root in urban areas.

And unlikely though it may seem, the changing fortunes of supermarkets is providing a boost, which is ironic given the damage they have done to small businesses over the course of decades.

The rise of discounters like Aldi and Lidl, which have damaged the big chains like Tesco or Asda, has made consumers rethink their food shopping.

Top-up trips to a variety of stores rather than one big weekly shop have become the norm for many, and substantial numbers are turning to their local parades as part of that mix.

And in doing so, they are rediscovering one of the great pleasures of a long-ago pre-supermarket age – coming to know and trust shopkeepers, developing a friendly first-name rapport with somebody whose first-rate customer service doesn’t come from a corporate manual but from a genuine desire to please.

It isn’t just food shops on suburban parades that find there is reason for optimism. The suburbs are the natural home of the distinctive, the individual and even the quirky.

Every city centre is dominated by the same lookalike chain stores. The cost of prime sites means there is an element of inevitability about this, but one result is to create shopping environments that can be rather anonymous.

Independents selling artisan products cannot realistically compete for the prime locations, but the local parades are providing an ideal home.

They are attracting customers in search of something different – often by marketing themselves online.

Those customers are not just from the local area, but from the city centres as well, who are finding that a run out into the suburbs for a stroll along a vibrant parade and a cuppa at the café makes a pleasant change from elbowing through the crowds.

But perhaps the best thing of all about parades like Bishopthorpe Road’s is the entirely positive part they play in bringing communities together and fostering a sense of pride and belonging.

Neighbours come to know each other by meeting there in a way they never can whilst battling round a supermarket with overloaded trolleys. Friendships are forged whilst queuing at the butcher or baker, community goings-on discussed, and plans for get-togethers laid.

Our parades deserve all the support we can give them, and if more can emulate the success of Bishopthorpe Road, we might even be on the brink of not just a golden age for the proud independent retailer, but for the communities they serve too.