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Could the internet save our town centres?

By Mark Andrews | Lichfield | Business | Published:

There is an eerie silence about our town centres at the moment. Apart from the odd supermarket and chemist, the shops are shut, the shutters down. And of course the tills are silent.

Shrewsbury's Wyle Cop, closed for business. Or is it?

As the region starts to consider the eventual end of the lockdown, many are wondering what our high streets will look like when the restrictions are finally lifted.

Will the shutters come up again? And if they do, what sort of shape will the businesses be in to survive the brave new world?

Polly Barnfield, who is from the West Midlands, is an expert in using social media to promote high-street retail.

Amy Burkinshaw of Hindleys bakery in Lichfield

She believes that traditional town centres still have a future, but they will need to embrace the worldwide web if they are to attract customers.

Mrs Barnfield, who founded the nationwide WDYT – What Do You Think? – campaign which encourages traditional retailers to make use of digital marketing, says the coronavirus outbreak has accelerated a trend towards online marketing that was already well underway.

The fight for survival is most acute for the small independent retailers who are the lifeblood of many of our market towns, yet Mrs Barnfield says these are the very retailers which in many cases are missing out on the opportunities presented by the internet.

“Consumers are spending 60 per cent more of their time online than they were prior to lockdown, yet only six per cent of independent businesses are using social media,” she says.

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“That’s such a waste, and it’s dropped since the lockdown, probably because businesses have furloughed their staff, but it’s where the customers are.”

Shoppers are staying away from West Bromwich town centre

There are signs of encouragement in some of the West Midlands’ best loved market towns, where the High Street is the heart of the community’s identity as well as economy.

The likes of Shrewsbury, Stafford and Lichfield have a higher concentration of smaller independent retailers who do not have the might of a head office to look to for help.

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Shrewsbury may be devoid of its tourists, students and locals crowding its town centre. But it has started its fight back, opening its ‘virtual doors’ in the town’s first online marketplace.

The Support Shrewsbury scheme, introduced at the end of last month, enables town centre businesses to offer a variety of gift vouchers and experiences over the worldwide web.

Set up by Shrewsbury Business Improvement District (Bid), with the support of My Shrewsbury magazine, the project has created a website supportshrewsbury.co.uk for businesses to sell their products and services during the lockdown, as well as vouchers to use when the crisis is over.

A deserted Stafford town centre during lockdown

Mrs Barnfield says this is a model which could be replicated by towns and cities across the West Midlands. She hopes it will inspire businesses both in rural Shropshire and Staffordshire but also the urban Black Country.

Stacey Hill, who keeps the Oberon in Wyle Cop, is optimistic the new website will provide a much-needed boost for the town.

“I’m bursting to get Shrewsbury bustling again and can’t wait for our shops to be open, but in the meantime this website gives everyone a chance to make sales and stay connected during these difficult times,” she says.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to get Shrewsbury open and thriving again, and if we have to set up provisions for social distancing then that’s what we’ll do.

“With Support Shrewsbury you can get ready for that moment and buy a gift voucher for all your favourite shops in Shrewsbury, I would urge everyone to take a look and help support the town centre at a time when we all really need it.”

Seb Slater, executive director of Shrewsbury Bid, says Support Shrewsbury is more than just a space for businesses to advertise.

“It will also be a virtual business community where business owners can share ideas and support each other, both during the coronavirus lockdown and beyond.”

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Lichfield has shot up the 'digital influence' rankings

One of the businesses forced to close its doors during the lockdown is the Ginger & Co coffee shop, but director Kate Gwilliam, says the website has provided a lifeline during this difficult time.

“Since the launch of Support Shrewsbury we’ve had a good number of voucher sales from lovely customers wanting to help us in these unprecedented times,” she says.

“Shrewsbury has a wonderful community and this shows through the support that we’ve had.

“The coming next 12 months are going to be extremely tough, particularly on the hospitality industry, so all the help we can get now will strengthen our chances of getting through this.

“We hope that the sales of vouchers, combined with other business adaptations, will mean we continue to get to see our customer’s smiling faces.”

One of the most familiar faces in the town is Dilwyn Jones who operates the Sabrina pleasure boat which provides cruises along the River Severn.

Mr Jones, who is also a director of Shrewsbury Bid, says the scheme has already generated some income for businesses in the town, expects this to grow as it becomes established.

“As more businesses choose to sell vouchers and experiences on the website it will gather good momentum and help support businesses it a really difficult time,” he says.

“Both locals and visitors to Shrewsbury can support Shrewsbury now and in the future.”

Mrs Barnfield’s WDYT social media campaign, backed by government, has also seen Stafford and Lichfield increase the number of visitors in recent years. Each year the campaign compiles a league table ranking 1,300 towns by ‘digital influence’; when Stafford shot up from 179th place to 40th in 2017, footfall in the town also increased by 22 per cent. Lichfield also rose to 22nd places in the digital rankings in 2018.

A very quiet Dudley Street in Wolverhampton city centre

In Lichfield, Hindleys Bakeries has just opened on its first Saturday since the lockdown was announced in March, following a steady increase in demand.

Manager Amy Burkinshaw said: “We were doing three days a week, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, but as we’re getting busier, we thought we would try a Saturday.

“We initially just started publicising our home deliveries on our Facebook and Instagram page, but we have now got an order form on our website,” she says.

Hindleys is one of nearly 200 businesses listed on the Lichfield Bid’s ‘digital high street’, a website which provides internet links to businesses across the city.

Mrs Burkinshaw says there has been a sharp increase in online-driven business since the lockdown, with about a third of business now coming as a result of online promotion.

Amy Burkinshaw of Hindleys bakery in Lichfield

“We are doing very well, it has got to the stage where we now may have to open another day,” she adds. “The internet can definitely be used to promote the traditional high street.”

Mrs Barnfield says the towns and businesses that emerge successfully from the lockdown will be the ones that make the most of online opportunities.

“The high street is in a state of evolution at the moment,” she says. “If you look at the biggest online retailers, the likes of Apple, they now have physical presence.

“But a customer’s life has now moved to their mobile phone, the start of a purchase now begins online. I might still want a physical experience, but if you don’t have an online presence, I’m not going to come in.”

And she warns that businesses that ignore this shopping revolution do so at their peril.

“So many businesses say they have a different customer profile, they say their customers are an older demographic that doesn’t go online, but they couldn’t be more wrong,” she says. “Since the lockdown, every grandmother is now on Facetime.”

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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