My partner came home from work with an interesting tale of our times. He had been talking to a chap who sells work-wear to the construction trade, until recently from a stall on Barnsley Market.
However, he’s recently left the stall – and the town centre – behind and opened a shop in an outlying village. He trades five full days a week and a half day on Saturdays, to suit his family life. He runs the business with his wife and promotes himself through word of mouth and Facebook. His customers can park in front of his shop without risk of a traffic warden slapping a ticket on their vans. And he has no regrets.
This highlights the dilemma facing countless small traders across our region. The troubles of our town centres – highlighted by this newspaper’s Love Your High Street campaign – are a two-way street. Shoppers are vital, but without traders there is no trade. In recent years, however, crippling rents and business rates, parking restrictions and high-handed local council policies have made it nigh on impossible to make a living.
As Simon and I are both self-employed, this is a matter close to our hearts. If we ruled the world, there would be a root and branch overhaul of how rents and terms and conditions for independent traders are decided. This would include favourable terms for new businesses for at least two years, to encourage them to set up shop and bring new customers to town.
And there would be free on-street parking for up to one hour every day. The loss of council income generated by parking meters would be a small price to pay for streets bustling with people spending money.
We were still talking about it when we called to see my parents. They were interested in the debate. Until recently, they were regular shoppers in town. These days, however, they only go when they have to, to visit the bank or pick up a few things from the market.
Why? Because, although they have a blue badge which allows free parking, it’s a hike from the car parks to what they need. Those who plan said car parks would no doubt disagree. Barnsley town centre is in the middle of a multi-million pound makeover, including new car parks. But not many car park planners are almost 75 and reliant on a mobility scooter (mum) or suffering from ill-health, including a serious heart condition (dad). There are a very limited number of places where they can park safely on the street and unload the scooter. Free parking, and more of it, they say.
Also, although both my parents are quite feisty, they don’t particularly care to wade through the “idiots” as my mother calls them. These are the charming individuals who loiter around the town centre. These pests include, in no particular order, people under the influence of illegal drugs, people intoxicated, gangs of young men hanging aimlessly about and charity ‘‘chuggers’’.
My teenage daughter, Lizzie, wholeheartedly agrees. She likes to go to town with her friends, but she hates the “idiots” too. It’s not nice to be hissed at as you walk along or to see people throwing up in the gutter. She would like to feel safer. She would also like more shops, ideally the biggest Primark in the world and some decent shoe shops. We’re promised more flagship retailers as part of the regeneration plans, so we shall see.
She makes a good point however. While we should all do everything we can to support independent traders, younger people in particular are drawn in by brand names they recognise and trust. The trick is to persuade them to see their local town centre or High Street as the first port of call, rather than heading off to the nearest shopping mall or retail park. This generates trade and has a knock-on beneficial effect for independents, cafes and services such as nail bars and hairdressers.
This is harder than it might appear. Last week, we took my son, Jack, to buy a new pair of goalie gloves. We do practice what I preach, so our first stop was the independent sports shop we’ve used for years. No luck. They didn’t have Jack’s size and the assistant made no offer to order them in.
We walked out, chuntering about lack of service and went to the Cheapside branch of the country’s biggest sports retailer instead. Still no luck. And so we found themselves in the risible position of perching on the handsome seats in the new public realm frantically googling the words “Amazon”, “Prime” and “goalie gloves”. And then people wonder why online shopping is taking away trade from town centres. Just a choice would be nice, Jack said.
From one family, that’s at least five ideas to help support and save local shops and independent traders.
We’re not retail analysts or consultants or experts in any way. Just ordinary people sad and frustrated at what’s happening to our own High Street.