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Christmas Shopping In Letchworth and beyond…


TTL has had a few initiatives over the years encouraging people to shop locally and this year we were involved in a shop locally Christmas poster campaign. This campaign recognised that we need to give our custom to local shops if they are to survive. Letchworth’s Business Improvement District (BID) has funded a number of initiatives in the last year to try and get people into the town centre and visiting the shops. Did you try to shop locally at Christmas and was this successful?  What kinds of things could you buy and what were you less successful in finding? If you did shop locally has your Christmas shopping experience had a knock on effect on where you shop?

Letchworth is in no way unique in its struggle to build a vibrant town centre where the shops are successful businesses. Discussions over how to address failing high streets is a common topic for media debate. Now that Christmas is over we see shops closing, for Letchworth our latest most visible losses have been the toy shop and the school uniform shop. So why were these shops unable to thrive in Letchworth?

Let’s start by thinking about the toy shop, now that it has gone we have the following options for buying a toy; Argos, the supermarkets, the bargain stores, other towns (most probably visiting one of the out of town toy stores) and on-line. With children of junior school age I am increasingly aware of how much of their entertainment comes from the different apps that download onto the various electronic devices. The games and activities of my childhood have very little interest for my children. So changes in demand also affect the viability of toy stores. What sort of toys do you buy and where do they come from?

Thinking now about the uniform shop, I have to buy my children’s uniform, with the school logo on, from an online shop that has a relationship with the school and I can wait weeks for its arrival. The quality is not great and the cuffs wear out before the uniform is outgrown, but one presumes that school gets a benefit from the deal. The uniform shop also provided non-logo school apparel, but these garments can be bought cheaply in supermarkets. Parents do get frustrated by the quality of the uniform we have to buy online, the slowness of delivery and the fact we cannot try the uniform for size, but this feedback has not had sufficient influence to save the uniform shop. It would be interesting to know other parents experiences of school uniform. Who sells the best quality, hardest wearing, uniform products? Could school badges to sew on give parents more buying options than current uniforms which include lots of products with printed and embroidered logos?

The new retail area just outside Biggleswade is drawing in customers, its our nearest big Marks and Spencer store and it has a few other ‘big draw’ stores. We see a pattern of retailers setting up a ‘Big Store’ that has little competition in an area so it can draw customers from a distance, alongside small stores (often food stores) which provide a, postage free, on-line shopping collection point. The medium sized stores that used to be in most town centres have gone. Do you think this trend is inevitable and we need to consider the town centre in the light of this change?

What is clear is our town centre is being affected by a change in both what we buy and how we buy it. The widening offer of goods in supermarkets, the ease of online shopping, the growth of out-of-town shopping centres and the change in what interests us as consumers has all affected our retail habits.

Entrepreneurs have been left to think up ideas for businesses, rent some premises and see how it goes. We have seen quite a few failures over the years. What we also have seen is that within a short period of time a number of people all with very similar products can be opening up shops. Where one or two shops might have survived, the opening of too many shops with the same product range leads to each shop providing for just a small proportion of the local demand and there is a tendency for them all to struggle and close. Are pop up shops a good idea or when they compete against existing shops’ products can they lead to the loss of what should have been successful long-term businesses? Do pop-up shops lead to the loss of vital Christmas sales for established businesses? Remember the bag shops that opened up across Letchworth town centre and now they are gone. Coffee shops and restaurants are the latest phenomena and it will be interesting to see how they all do. What do you think about the way shops have been opening and closing at great speed?  To you, is it just the tough world of commerce or should there be some planning?

With empty shops and shops that are not always open, the incentive to explore the whole of our town centre is reduced. A post office on the periphery does not bring trade into the town centre. Is our town centre too big and would shops thrive better if they were closer together? What was right for the turn of the last century is not necessarily right for todays world. We desperately need housing but we clearly are not desperate for the number of shops we have. It seems a good time to review the appropriate size of our town centre.

So where next? Campaigns to encourage people into the town centre alone are not going to give us a thriving town centre with resilient businesses. Waiting for entrepreneurs to miraculously produce the right mix of shops to get people regularly into the town centre is also not working. On the optimistic side we know that shops like Iceland and Home Bargains are well utilised and keep some footfall so there is hope (interestingly both of these shops have recently opened shops on the industrial estate). It seems the right time for the people of the town to assist in some strategic thinking and share their thoughts about what they want from their town centre.

Add your ideas to this blog. TTL would like to contribute ideas for the town centre into a Neighbourhood Plan. Let’s have yours!

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