Hurst Rethink investigates…The Future of the High Street

These are worrying times for our local High Street. Although the entrepreneurs behind many small businesses are an adaptable bunch, the lockdown in November came as just another sucker punch on top of several blows in recent years. Many traders are struggling to survive – and we wonder how many more empty units we’ll see before the pandemic is through. 

With people across the country re-assessing how they live their lives, we asked traders and customers alike how they see the future for the High Street – and why it’s so vital for villages like Hurstpierpoint. 

Why is a thriving High Street important to the village? 

Our High Street is often cited as a reason why people move to Hurstpierpoint – you only have to look at local estate agent listings boasting of a ‘bustling High Street’ to see what a draw it is. The High Street isn’t just a row of shops, it’s the hub of the community. It’s where neighbours and friends bump into each other of a morning. It’s vital for social cohesion and it’s where the community comes together on a daily basis. 

Not only that but our local shops offer familiarity, advice and often a bespoke service that you just can’t get at bigger retailers. It’s not just about money for them. They know us and our families. We are their friends. Shopping on the High Street is a pleasure rather than a chore. 

Independent retailers can play a really important part in building local communities and lockdown has really shown us how much a part of the local community the High Street is.

Why should we use the local shops? 

Several traders we spoke to agreed that we need to get across the message that many of them are on the brink. Traders are doing what they can to adapt – but they need our help. Put starkly, if we don’t use them, we’ll lose them.  They ask that rather than jumping in our cars to drive to a supermarket, we think twice and consider whether we could shop locally instead. Yes, the price might be a bit higher because local shops can’t buy in the quantity that large shops can, but you gain in other ways by being part of a local community and getting to know the shopkeepers.

From a sustainable point of view, shopping locally also saves on needless packaging and car journeys. Many of our local shops offer plastic free packaging and a choice of fresher, locally made or sourced products.

How has 2020 been for the High Street?

Several shops got very busy during the first lockdown but as soon as supermarket slots became available again, people went back to their old habits and business tailed off. Footfall has dropped over recent years as people want to park right next to where they shop. This trend has been exacerbated by COVID. Many traders have found that the second half of the year has been incredibly tough; people have less money to spend and are defaulting to supermarkets. 

Compared to many, Hurstpierpoint High Street is doing OK, far better than larger ones up and down the country. Vacant units get filled quickly – for example Fuel Cafe opened last month in what used to be Desk Village, and Village Pizza Kitchen has applied for permission to trade where Ruby Watts used to be. What becomes of the building where Marram Trading and Raven used to be remains up in the air but the move to food and drink and service based businesses such as barbers and hairdressers is clear to see. 

How have traders adapted? 

Many businesses who have traditionally only operated with a bricks and mortar model, have taken their businesses online, whilst pubs and other food and drinks businesses have begun to offer takeaway and delivery where they have only provided dine-in previously.

Hurstpierpoint High Street traders told us that the shops that are surviving are indeed those that offer delivery and online ordering – and those that have a strong social media presence – as well as having an online shop to fall back on. So being flexible and adapting to the times helps a lot.

In addition to COVID, what other problems do traders face?

There seem to be two issues. The first is the much discussed traffic problem which puts people off walking up the High Street; it was built for horses and carts but now has to cope with endless streams of cars, delivery vans, buses and SUVs trying to squeeze past each other, often aggressively!

Another is the behaviour of some landlords and commercial agents. Rather than being flexible and supporting traders, their only concern seems to be profit. Several traders fear more and more units will turn residential and once they are gone, won’t come back. 

The acceleration of the digital revolution is changing the relationship between retailers and landlords as businesses demand a more flexible rental system. Perhaps in the future landlords will have to accept that turnover-based rents will be part of deals.

What does the future hold for High Street Retail?

Local retailers will need to adapt to new consumer patterns. For example they can provide the community with choices that reflect a changing world where consumption can sit comfortably alongside sustainability. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to imagine a high street full of local food producers and suppliers, artists, service based businesses, food and drink outlets, repair shops, swap shops, health food shops and refill stations?

What can you do to help?

One trader we spoke to said it’s been frustrating for shop owners to see new faces in lockdown, just to lose them as restrictions are lifted. People need to think twice about where they shop and consider whether they could support a local business instead. They urge locals, in particular newcomers, to give the shops a try, especially in the build up to Christmas. Why not try buying some (or all?) of your gifts on the High Street?

Looking ahead, there is a need for some kind of event to bring people back to the High Street and recreate the community feel. We also can’t wait for St Lawrence Fair, Hurst Festival and the Christmas Street Party to return in 2021.

Perhaps local people should be empowered to help design their High Street, and have a say on the businesses, services and amenities on it. Food for thought.
For now, why not check out our list of local traders, suppliers and producers and their online links so you can continue to support them over the crucial Christmas trading period:

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