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Every day you turn on the news and you hear about another business either scaling down or closing down entirely. Last week it was House of Fraser closing 31 of its 59 shops.  How sad.  Of course, what makes it even more hard for #bournemouth that the closing of the Bournemouth branch comes on the back of M&S’s closure and I notice recently that Russell & Bromley have re-located to Southampton West Quay.  We can all see where this is all going but what has driven this decline and what can we do about it.  And looking on the bright side, what clever and creative projects do we bring to the area to ‘fill’ two huge buildings?

I have always been a massive fan of the high street – okay that does mean I like to shop – but over and above that, I love the vibrancy of a buzzing high street and even though everyone says the internet is killing the high street (yes to an extent) as someone who happily uses the Giant corporate that begins with an A and ends in zon, I still 100% favour the high street.  I still love to browse through clothes and shoes and handbags and gifts and touch and feel the product.  Swiftly followed by lunch and then a night out – it’s the perfect day for a lot of us girls.  But, I think that what you and I want from the high street is miles away from what we used to want and here’s why.

We no longer want to dress like the next person. We want quirky different and innovative.  We know what we want and we no longer want to trudge the high streets to receive mediocre service and a desolate high street.  What we do want are those amazing high streets that flourish and yes, there are lots of them.  These high streets have been very smart.  They have encouraged the independents – the stylish, different, trendy and combined those independent shops with a healthy splattering of restaurants, cafes and bars.  It is the perfect combination and St Albans in Hertfordshire is a perfect example of that mixture.  There are many other towns, just like St Albans, that do very well.  Take Fowey in Cornwall, or Tavistock in Devon, Marlow in Bucks, Southwold in Suffolk, Dartmouth in Devon, Brighton, and of course, the ‘off piste’ streets of London. I was lucky enough to be in Shoreditch recently and the energy was just phenomenal. Small boutiques, cafes, bars, work spaces, markets, art, galleries.  One of the most vibrant towns in Britain is North Berwick in Scotland.  Just amazing.  It just shows that with the right mix of shops, a high street can still thrive.

One of my key observations however is these places I have described above adhered to the basic principles, great customer service, interesting choice of product, care and attention to detail.  When iI was in North Berwick, I could not help but notice that every charity shop resembles a regular high street shop.  Flower baskets are watered and look amazing, clever graffiti is used to disguise an ugly building, padlocks are displayed on fenced off derelict areas.

It is important in life to take responsibility for events.  Many of these high street stores ‘blame’ the internet and the decline of foot fall?  But surely they need to understand why their customer has abandoned them in the first place?  I recall an incident many years ago. I was in London and wanted to go to the new @MaryPortas retail outlet newly opened in House of Fraser. I was literally champing at the bit as I love Mary and I could not wait to see her clothing collection in the flesh.  As I hit the store I could not believe firstly how over-crowded it was – mainly due to the huge cluster of store ‘furniture’ including pillars. As I tried to navigate my way through the store to the stairs, I literally found myself in front of a till – much to the bemusement of the store assistant.  But, as I explained to her, this environment is not welcoming. The store is so cramped, I already feel like turning around and walking out and the fact that I have to walk to the back of the store to find the stairs……up to the nirvana that is Mary’s offering?

As it so happened, about a year later, House of Fraser refurbished that store.  But even at that time I sensed the first hint of a problem. On moving to Bournemouth in 2014 I was amazed to see that the house of Fraser in the Royal Arcade looked like it needed a make over.  When a store looks like it’s losing its way, it probably is.  So there we have it, the chicken and the egg of the retail industry.  Customers like a nice welcoming environment. Many websites are really stylish and promote a sense of calm and well-being, my first sense of House of Fraser was “oh dear”.  But they probably have been struggling for some time and failing to invest in their premises has simply hastened their situation.  Only a few weeks ago I went to House of Fraser (they have some great brands like Mint Velvet, French Connection and Biba) only to feel I was in a ghost-ship, I think I was probably the only customer in the store and made a bee-line for the door.

In my view, many of the shops now look the same and even the clothing ‘mirrors’ each shop. In the end you lose the will to live as nothing ‘stands out’.  In particular the department stores simply stock brands that we can already buy from directly.  This started to happen many years ago – for instance, you could browse through a small display of French Connection clothing in a department store,  but if you’re not tempted, you can simply go up the road and fill your boots in the gorgeous, stylish and much bigger store version.  Why?  How on earth does that work? That is, to my mind, overload. You can either buy it in the Department store or in a stand-alone store – not both. It’s never going to work.

I was lucky enough to live in Los Angeles for a short time and it saddened me to see the chains, one after the other, on every main shopping street and mall.  I hoped upon hope that we would never become a nation of shopping malls but in truth we are becoming that way.  However, from a consumer’s point of view I can see why malls are becoming so popular. Big selection of shops, all in one nicely decorated vibrant shopping complex which also houses restaurants and bars and in some cases, cinemas.  The Southampton West Quay venue is a brilliant example of a shopping experience done very well – even if the brands are ‘high street’ it is a pleasant experience.

There are, of course brands that buck the trend.  John Lewis are, in my view, one of the finest stores we have in this country. The service is second to none but over and above that, and we all know that you pay extra for that, it’s the brands they stock.  When I had my shop I struggled to keep ahead of them as they took on brand after brand. In fact, one independent told me the other day that she had dropped one of her clothing lines as they were about to supply John Lewis. I felt for her, but at the same time, as a fan of John Lewis, I had to admire them for their ‘ahead of the curve’ ability to stock brands that consumers love.  But it’s not just that. You trust John Lewis and the shopping experience is so ‘calm’ and inviting.  You literally are buying into the whole concept of John Lewis, not just ‘one’ of their brands.

On the other scale, Tiger is doing well. It’s so quirky and different and ‘fun’. I like to go in there just to have a browse and probably end up buying a fake ginger moustache should I ever need to wear one whilst ‘secret shopping’ in Bournemouth.

As for the House of Fraser building?  I have no miracle solutions but in the back of my mind I would love to see John Lewis come into Bournemouth with its full range including clothing and all the other lovely ‘stuff’. The Branksome branch, although lovely, does not offer the full kit and caboodle – maybe they are considering their options?  Another option and completely different from this……when I was in North Berwick I saw a large building which housed artisan businesses, a mixture of food, tea-rooms, clothing, jewellery etc.  Maybe a kind of consortium of really stylish Dorset businesses, coming together with a ‘work space’ from which they can retail their wares?  Or maybe a mixture of apartments, hired work space with an bar or cafe on the ground floor?

Bournemouth is a great place, it is fun and has a great energy.  And of course there has been some great regeneration with the Hilton, Odeon cinema and the plethora of restaurants and bars including @banqueandbohem who are lighting up the nightlife and ‘raising the bar’.  Let’s hope those lovely people at @bournemouthbc are working on some stellar plans.  More restaurants and bars housing a few boutiques and shops will pave the way to a better brighter Bournemouth.  In my view, Bournemouth is the place to be and I love it more now than when I did when I was a little girl who used to feed the squirrels in the gardens.

Maybe a survey needs to be started to ask the people what they want?

With love

Tracey Beesley
A Dorset based Lifestyle Consultant