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Thriving High Street

High street strategy for Cherwell

1. Encourage a thriving high street environment

Before beginning its work, Grey4Gold carried out an audit of the town’s growing population, the changing demographic, the increasing expectations of its new residents, its national popularity as a the 13th most popular place to live in, in the UK, its garden town status and the councils declared objective of defining a master-plan that is designed to deliver an ‘energetic and thriving town.’

Grey4Gold, as part of its fact finding work was asked to interpret the 2012 retail study and the 2014 footfall analysis. (Appendix PDF and pages 12/13/14 in the 26 May report)

Grey4Gold looked closely at the town’s streetscape, aesthetics, physical attractiveness through the eyes of visitors, retailer’s, consumer’s and would-be retail tenants. It looked too and the quality and attraction of the weekly market. 

Grey4Gold studied the marketing and the local methods of communication, transport and parking issues, the town’s consumer events and how it projected its rich historical heritage.

In July 2013 just prior to the Sainsbury’s opening in Pioneer Square, retailers and consumers were given to believe that this important town centre redevelopment with the soon to open Vue Cinema, Nandos, Peacocks, Prezzo, Dean’s Diner and Sports Direct would be ‘awesome.’

The promises of ‘walkways looking brilliant’ and ‘quirky street art’ and ‘a great place to socialize in the evening’ and ‘opportunity for new business’ simply have not happened and without doubt the traders became disillusioned and badly underperformed against the national average.

There was an anticipation of improvement amongst the traders that sadly has never manifested itself. Sheep Street’s and Market Square’s trade have declined since 2013, retail occupancy in Crown Walk has never been filled and shabbiness and poor common part standards have prevailed. 

Trade was poor, shops began to close, a blame culture developed (particularly amongst surviving retailers) and a degree of cynicism set in.

It is important to remember that a retailer’s rent and rates are, by far, the biggest proportion of its fixed costs. If top line sales are below expectations it will often lead to an owner not taking a salary and working over 100 hours a week. Not hard to understand the level of disgruntlement and impatience shown to us.

Just to add to the challenges, Dean’s Court has declined for several reasons that include poor common part upkeep, lack of visibility from the high street, vacant and underperforming shops and a poor mix of tenants. Sainsbury’s free parking has not helped either and nor has the complex parking system.

A thriving ‘High Street’ is what CDC (an enlightened council) wants, especially when it knows its population is expanding fast. The community wants it (Appendix C), the retailers want it, the landlords want it.

2. Maintain and develop current retail offer

Grey4Gold research discovered that Bicester Town average retail sales per square foot (ex big space retailers) is £200 pa against a national average of £400.

Grey4Gold looked at the retail mix* in the town and compared it to thriving areas in other parts of the UK of a similar size. The findings were stark.

The mix in Bicester is too heavily weighted to ‘basic’ needs and not to a ‘desirable’ place to shop and be entertained in.

Grey4Gold began the project by taking detail soundings, through publicly held (and advertised) forums from retailers (appendix A and page 3 in the 26 May report).

*On 26 May Grey4Gold presented to a bi-lateral meeting various documents and graphs on its retail mix findings that included the actual trading mix of the 131 traders in the Town and cross matched the data with comparable towns and successful suburbs and small conurbations. See pages 15/16/17 in the 26 May report.

3. Attract new businesses to the area & reduce vacancy rates

A shortlist of likely tenants was presented to the meeting on 26 May, page 19 but it was emphasised by Grey4Gold that much had to be achieved in the town in order to attract the area controller’s of the companies mentioned. Consumers in their feedback warmed to this list but realistically they are unlikely to sign leases until they can see a plan that is being run in a cohesive and collegiate way.

Grey4Gold held a briefing meeting with landlords and covered the following points to :

  • Consider consumer research and feedback and foot-flow findings
  • Agree a tenant ‘mix’ objective
  • Agree to offer short term licenses   
  • Be aware of small business rate relief (awareness)      
  • Deal with Dean’s Court, Crown Walk, Library area and parking challenges
  • Work with and encourage Bicester Town Council support to improve ‘streetscape’ and aesthetics
  • Give enthusiastic support for a Trader’s ‘action’ group (let’s improve what’s here)
  • Advertising for new tenants in areas of trade to complement existing
  • Shortlist and work with Brands to achieve a better ‘mix’
  • ‘Dress’ vacant shops: www.virtual-shopfront.com
  • Ask Sainsbury to consider  ‘filling’ vacant shops with niche product, i.e. TU
  • Engage with Bicester Village to support, Town map
  • Engage with Bicester Town History:  www.blhs.org.uk to ‘liven’ the town on weekends
  • Lobby the need for ‘Coherent & Inclusive’ retail leadership:

Grey4Gold suggested that landlords:

  • Stop blaming would be tenants for ‘not meeting your (out of touch) rent demands’
  • Actively encouraging licenses
  • Encourage start ups
  • Don’t leaving vacant shops looking dirty and blighted
  • Respond fast to interested parties
  • Don’t lease to charity shops and disregarding the poor mix
  • Develop a letting strategy in liaison with the Leader of CDC, to get the ‘mix’ right
  • Don’t allow common parts to deteriorate around vacant properties
  • Don’t allow empty shops to become ‘poster sites’
  • Work with CDC to improve the streetscape

4. Support traders to improve their business success

Having listened to the retailers in the forums and developed a SWOT (Appendix A) we identified that:

A formation of a retailer group (1 year term for the chair) was vital to:

  • Raise retail standards
  • Focus on the retail proposition to meet demand
  • Lobby the CDC and landlords for change in mix
  • Lobby the CDC  for a better market and an open mind on parking issues
  • Consider the rates paid, and talk to the council
  • Work with your peers and form a group
  • Put on and plan more events
  • Talk to your landlord about your rent
  • Ask CDC for a fair parking system
  • Not worry about Bicester Village
  • Talk to the market operators and ask for a table

To accomplish all this and demonstrate the evidence of improvement will not only be tangible but will encourage new traders into the Town.

We also urged those retailers who attended the mentoring sessions to study carefully the Grey4Gold ‘health check’ (copy available on request) so they could become excellent in all their activities and to meet the very high consumer expectations.

5. Empower retail businesses to recognise their role in the vitality of Bicester and to increase their competitiveness and resilience, to enable them to meet needs of customers to avoid ‘leakage’ of retail spend to competing towns and shopping centres.

Grey4Gold delivered a session on 7 September to present ‘Retail Success Today’ a book or guide to help SME retailers meet the demands of the market today.

When Grey4Gold began the project in February it was met with antipathy and cynicism by the retailers who attended. When the event was held on 7 September, the mood had changed and the attendees really believed that change was possible and how important it was to come together and work as a group.

There are some retailers in the Town who would survive in any high street because they are prepared to:

  • Listen to their customers
  • Work on developing a database
  • Refine their proposition so their customer’s clearly understand their offer
  • Be ‘great’ at giving service, inside and outside of the business
  • Being great at follow up and developing a loyalty programme
  • Work hard on their environment and place
  • Embracing on-line
  • Happy to be mentored and prepared to be open minded
  • Consider their opening hours to ‘be there when the customers are.’

Grey4Gold urged those retailers who attended the 1-2-1 mentoring sessions to study carefully the Grey4Gold SWOT on their business and the ‘health check’ (copy available on request) so they could become excellent in all their activities and to meet, even exceed the very high consumer expectations.

6. Conclusions and recommendation:

It was quite clear at this session on 26 May 2016 that Grey4Gold had ‘tapped’ into issues, with the support of evidence gained at the forums, and there was a strong belief among the attendees that action had to be taken.

Why has the promised revival of the retail fortunes of the town failed despite the Sainsbury’s arrival in 2013?

There is no single reason.

Can the situation be turned around? Yes.

A bi-lateral commercial and residential plan, that’s driven, funded and managed by CDC with the agreement and support of representatives of the commercial and local landlords, the town’s retailers and consumers, will help turn the corner.

Several detailed objectives have been identified and were presented to Council on 7 September.

Grey4Gold is happy to present to CDC a retail marketing and action plan that will include the positive experiences learned throughout the project and will, as part of their involvement, provide (at their cost) all the specialists that may be required.

Grey4Gold will take on the role of ‘Town Manager’

We see it as essential that whoever carries out this role does not need daily managing.

Grey4Gold will require 2 days a month to inspect and action town initiatives that have been signed off.

The project will include all (essential) meetings and town inspection walks.

The job specification of ‘ Grey4Gold acting as: Town Manager:

  • 12 group monthly retailer meetings* (of which 6 will have a fixed agenda, See appendix ‘F’ below) a year to review town retailers KPI’s and performance tracker.
  • Agree town marketing plan and implement.
  • Continual one to one mentoring of retailers to improve performance
  • Identify and attract new appropriate retailers by visiting retailers HQ and do professional presentation.

Grey4Gold, is a specialist retail ‘provider’ and can deliver this programme and provide all the retail specialism required.

The fee for this work was presented to CDC on 7 September.