Ray Dawe: responding superbly to town centre challenges

I recently received an email suggesting that Horsham town is falling behind in the battle for retailers. This led me to look at how town centre shops are doing throughout the country.

Research from Experian, a company reporting on shopping trends, shows that though we blame the recession for empty shops, even in 2000 these made up 8.7 per cent of the national total and it hasn’t got any better since, with the number of stores falling by almost 15,000 between 2000 and 2010. Much of this loss is in smaller communities where out-of- town supermarkets have dragged the customers away but the High Street has shown a big decline too; here this is usually put down to competition from internet sales.

In that same period, Amazon’s sales grew 12-fold and the UK has the highest proportion of online spending in the world. A report by the Economist predicts online purchases will in ten years make up a third of all retail sales in Britain.  So beyond doubt the internet is changing the way we shop. Well known stores are feeling the pressure of the prices and convenience that online offers. Stores from bookshops to electrical goods retailers are closing. Sebastian James, the boss at Currys, the electrical retailer, recently said: “The High Street will no longer so much be for players like us, it’ll be for restaurants and leisure activities.”

So what can we learn? Currently online shopping generally revolves around searching for a specific item, often because it is cheaper or because it is not worth our bothering to go into town. However, there are good examples of retailers adapting well to this changed environment and realising the internet’s limitations. An example is that of ‘fashion’ stores. I refer here to retailers like TK Maxx which began in the mid 1990s and have expanded in this internet age. Previously, people bought clothes at the beginning of each season. Now, customers return regularly, anticipating new discoveries. The success comes from regular reorganisation of store layout, rapid turnover of merchandise and a fresh experience every time.

A further trend is the move to ‘Click & Collect’, purchasing goods online but then picking them up the next day in-town.

So how is Horsham town doing? Certainly, like elsewhere, some national chain shops have closed and the retail mix is changing, but so is the experience. The simple response to any comment implying failure must be in the long list of retailers that have arrived or expanded in the recent past. They clearly have great confidence in Horsham’s future: Veasey’s Fish shop, Pret-a-Manger, Crew, Sports Direct, Carmela Deli, Bill’s, Fat Face, Moshulu, Pure White Lines. Equally, we have two in-town major supermarkets both trading very successfully, ‘Click &Collect’ at M&S, Next and Waitrose (for John Lewis orders) and the district council is promoting the new Thursday market. There is also a whole series of events, such as Piazza Italia, throughout the year, bringing in many hundreds of people from the rest of the district and beyond. There has been council investment in East Street but this was only the catalyst for a flood of private investment in the town.

Does this mean that we can sit back and be complacent? Absolutely not; we are moving on to revitalise West Street and thinking beyond that. By anyone’s standards, we can demonstrate an enviable record for Horsham in responding superbly to the challenges town centres are facing.