Despite the roller-coaster of the last year, and the uncertainty that lies ahead, now is the time to start thinking positively and creatively about how we rebuild our towns and cities.
Physical retail has undoubtedly taken a battering – with many big casualties – but there is life in our high streets yet. Although many shops were deemed ‘non-essential’ during lockdown, the early morning, frosty-breathed queues show that a lot of shoppers take a different view of what is ‘vital’.
Whether it is through in-store browsing or mobile scrolling, shopping remains a national pastime, as much as a necessity. And while the crisis has definitely scarred many town centres, creating unemployment and store-front gaps, we should not forget that these are places where many of us once loved to spend our time, and will do so again.
With lockdown nudging even the most reluctant shopper online, the digital shift will stick. But now there is an opportunity for our towns and city centres to be reshaped post-pandemic into community hubs that are brought to life by small businesses. To do this effectively we need to let go of what they once were and focus on what they now need to be. Could that disused department store be a food hall? Or a co-working space? Or a market?
The goodwill from consumers is certainly there. This crisis has fostered a deeper connection with our local areas – the fruit and veg shop owner that delivered your last-minute Christmas dinner ingredients, the local barista that perked up your daily walk through that long, cold winter, the chocolatier that helped you make Valentine’s Day more special, all contributed to a growing love for small, local enterprises.
Small retailers that had an online presence, or were able to quickly create an e-commerce facility, often did well in lockdown, as they found a way to engage and occupy new and existing audiences craving ways to distract and treat themselves and others.
When the high street opened back up again last December, there was record spend on Small Business Saturday. Shoppers who took to the high street demonstrated a real sense of community spirit, with 48 per cent stating that they chose to spend money with small businesses as they wanted to support them as much as possible after a tough year.
Now, with much of the nation grounded on the British isles this summer – some even reported to have accumulated savings and determined to have a good time – England’s towns and cities stand ready for rediscovery. Beautiful Yorkshire will certainly be a hotspot, from the Dales, to the Shambles, to the Coast. Small businesses can be the honey in the pot.
Take Hetty and Betty in Whitby that has been serving up fish and chips since 1928 and has just been shortlisted for our ‘High Street Hero’ Small Award, sponsored by TSB. A regeneration success story, it shares its passion for the town’s history and hidden gems with tourists.
Throughout this lockdown, small firms have shown remarkable entrepreneurism and agility in the way they have pivoted. Indeed Hetty and Betty found a will and a way to deliver its signature ‘fish and chip high tea’ to people’s homes. Now these small businesses must be the first movers again, but this time focusing on being innovative with ‘bricks’ as much as ‘clicks’.
Of course, small businesses cannot regenerate towns and cities alone. But by working together they can be a powerful force for encouraging locals and visitors back and creating a sense of destination; whether it is a pop-up market, a summer festival, or a new joint venture.
Of course, they also need support from others – local and central government, BIDs and LEPs, big businesses, and the local community will all play a role in getting the county’s businesses back on their feet.
By using the full force of their community spirit, digital gains and customer affection, small businesses can be part of a great revival, helping to breathe new life into areas that have perhaps lost some of their gusto.
It has been a traumatic year, with a winter to move on from. But it is not the moment for us to lose hope for our high streets. It could yet be a summer to remember, in Yorkshire, and across the nation.
Michelle Ovens CBE is Founder of Small Business Britain.
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