Sunday, 30 March 2014

Saving our High Streets or Killing Them? - Fake Shop Fronts

 By David Symington for Issue 13 of The Ulster Folk

Since the rise in popularity of out of town shopping centres our traditional high streets have been in steady decline.  The convenience of easy parking and a range of stores all under one roof means that battling to find a parking space on the high street before trudging up and down cluttered pavements, laden with various shopping bags, no longer has the appeal that it used too.  Many attempts to rekindle our previous love affair with the high street have so far come to nothing.  If our high street shops are truly to thrive once more then we need to have a complete rethink of what they should be offering the consumer.

What many believe to be the high street’s one advantage is the unique shopping experience that it can potentially offer.  An experience that invites the consumer to stay for hours, shopping at a relaxed pace in an atmosphere of creativity and friendliness. An area of destination shops and boutiques offering goods that are not readily available elsewhere combined with a coffee shop and wine bar culture.

If this is our desired goal for our high streets then we have a long way to travel before we get there.  Many of Northern Ireland’s high streets are now simply littered with betting shops and charity stores, interspersed between ugly, drawn down shutters that mark the graves of shops that have since permanently closed their doors.

As a first step on the road to recovery we need to address these reminders of failure. Our high streets cannot recover if they remain uninviting places to be in.  While it is not possible to simply create numerous thriving boutiques overnight and install them in every empty high street premise, it is possible to create that appearance.  Instead of simply having drawn down shutters and boarded up windows we can install temporary shop fronts that give passers-by the realistic feel that they are walking past high quality shops.  It would also give local artists and engineers’ opportunities to create their own businesses, by designing and creating better and more individual shop fronts that can be rented and moved from one place to the next as and when they are required.

This tactic was first used in 1980s New York and has been repeated in many areas since, most notably perhaps during the G8 summit in Fermanagh and along the main routes to Stormont in Belfast. Failure only tends to breed more failure and our high street recovery will not take place until we first make them places that consumers want to be in and stay in.

This approach is not without its critics however. Many existing high street owners feel that it merely covers over the problem without addressing the real practical business needs, such as lower business rates and long term planning.  That if the failure is out of sight then the issue will remain out of mind.  These are genuine concerns and it only goes to prove just how hard the battle to breathe life back into our high streets really is.


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