GED Gibbons, the man tasked with heading a commission that will review St Helens town centre and report back to the council, writes for the Star to mark Independents' Day 2014.
Town centres are changing and things will never return to ‘how it used to be’.
Competition is all around – online shopping, other towns and cities, out-of-town retail development. Even cheap flights abroad are now taking many of us to do our Christmas shopping in Germany and Scandinavia.
The key for successful town centres is to pick out key strengths, their particular unique selling points, and to harness the support of the local community.
My time in St Helens clearly showed me that the good folk of the borough are as passionate as anyone else, but my view is that this needs to be re-energised – and it works best when you have the right people involved.
Towns are no longer nine-to-five retail destinations – they are so much more.
There is the evening and night-time economy, commerce, events, sport, public transport, car parking, education, culture and much more.
But how is all this being communicated and who is co-ordinating the St Helens offer?
Retail will always be a vital ingredient in any town centre.
But new business must be given every opportunity to flourish. Most businesses fail within their first 12 months, so we need to look at how we both attract and maintain new business.
My experience tells me that we are no longer looking at replacing ‘like-for-like’ – we cannot simply fill voids and vacant units with the same businesses.
For the customer, all of the above makes it a very good time to be looking at purchases, whatever they might be.
The challenge is, however, coming from many quarters. For example, most white goods – fridges, washing machines etc – are now bought online, with no need for the purchaser to go into town to pick them up.
Remember queuing at Argos at Christmas, hoping that a particular toy was in stock? No longer! Via your smartphone or computer you make 100 per cent certain the item is not only there but reserved and bought online.
We must embrace technology and accept that change is inevitable.
Our towns are more Darwinian than ever – it is survival of the fittest! You only have to look what happened to Woolworths and music shops like HMV.
The lower end products are still in our town and city centres, no longer Woolworths but B&M, Home Bargains and a 99p Store. It is customer-led and the market follows the demand.
While LPs and vinyl records are coming into vogue again, almost all music is now downloaded or bought over the internet.
But at the end of the day, towns and cities are all about people – adults, children, local residents, visitors, business people, retailers (particularly independent retailers), bankers, solicitors, shopkeepers…the list goes on.
We need to engage with these people. We need to understand what they – the customer/retailer – want.
Independent retailers play a huge role in adding to the diversity of our centres, so we need to encourage and nurture them.
Often, people travel to a centre simply to experience the independent offer, because it is so rich and varied.
We need a town centres strategy where we can communicate to the people of St Helens, and its visitors, where the town is going.
A good solid team of players with lots of different skills and qualities will, in my humble opinion, help us to achieve this.
There is no monopoly on this – great ideas come from anywhere. There will be opportunities for people to engage in this process, and I very much look forward to re-acquainting myself with some of the best people I have ever had the pleasure of working with, and also getting to know lots of new people.