The problem, I have realised, is that I am no longer sure of what I’ll find. For example, on Bank Holiday Monday, I spent an hour or so walking round town (Harrogate). It was bright but windy and spitty. Even so, there were plenty of people about, a mix of local and out-of-towners, some Americans, some Chinese. It all felt very cosmopolitan, holiday-like.
Except, many of these people were wandering about aimlessly, uncertainly, pulling at doors and peering into shops and cafes to see if they were open. Because at 9-10am, some were and some weren’t. Marks & Spencer was open at 9am, while across the way, Next was due to open at 10am. Boots was open early, as were Primark, LK Bennett and River Island, but The White Company and Mint Velvet not until 10am. It was the same with the cafes, with the result that early-opening Hoxton North was very busy indeed. (As an aside, I might have gone to Filmore and Union for breakfast, but it’s closed, sadly, along with its sister Deli where I used to buy great salads. A shock and my sincere commiserations to the staff. A Facebook group set up to highlight their plight - eight sites are closed with around 80 staff affected - makes for interesting and unsettling reading.)
Is anyone any closer to answering the question, what is going wrong with our town centres? Not from where I’m standing (or wandering about, looking for an open shop at 9.15am). We are all aware by now that the problems affecting the high street are manifold and complex, but surely one positive move would be a consistency of opening hours?
A total of 226 shops closed on Yorkshire’s high streets last year. Many of us no longer see the town centre as the first place to shop; we go online or to retail developments with parking, shopping and leisure parks such as The Springs Thorpe Park Leeds, the White Rose Centre, Monks Cross York and York Designer Outlet, Meadowhall Sheffield and Knaresborough’s Saint James Retail Park (that place is impressively busy, as anyone who regularly does “chase the parking space” knows).
In practice, I can get most of what I need on a weekly basis at Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose and Asda.
The town centre now has to give us more reason to visit by offering something we can’t get anywhere else. Experiences. Individuality. Excellent independent shops, bars and eateries for starters. Just look at Bettys celebrating its centenary this year. People come from across the globe to queue outside Bettys Harrogate so they can experience its afternoon teas, rosti and Fat Rascals. It remains a locals’ hangout too.
Chain outlets also have a role to play and should consider bringing a more local, personal feel, perhaps taking a leaf from Waterstones which has found success with its in-store cafes, kids story club, author events and staff recommendations pinned on shelves. Setting aside the Waterstones staff Real Living Wage campaign for a moment, there is a sense that individuals matter on both sides of the till. All retailers, hospitality and entertainment providers should see their staff as the jewels in their crown and should select, train, respect, listen to and pay them accordingly.
It’s not just millennials and Generation Z who want experiences when they venture into the real world of the high street. We all do. We all want a sense of community, a personal touch, something different. We want to go where maybe not everybody knows your name, but the staff know and enjoy their jobs, understand the local area and can provide service and recommendations with insight and engagement.
We would also like to know what time our town centres are open for our business.