There was lots in the news on the BBC on Friday about the seaside town of Margate having the worst percentage of empty shops for any town in the UK with a 25% rate. This was closely followed by Derby, which for a major urban conurbation has an astonishing rate of 22%.
So I thought I was in a good place to comment on both places from a branding perspective and from a common sense perspective. The two are often quite separate and for me, this seems to have been the case in both of these examples.
So firstly Derby. It’s a compact city that has built it name on the back of engineering with Rolls Royce, and latterly Toyota and Bombardier. It used to have a lovely friendly small city vibe to it but was always slightly ‘chippy’ about its relationship with Nottingham, just a few miles along the A52. It seemed to spend more time looking at what Nottingham was doing and trying to compare itself favourably to it, rather than looking at organising its own offer. It has been branded as the city of the future, Derby yes and I don’t know how many other silly place branding attempts. All have failed to capture what is great about the city, which, for an outsider looking in, is that it is easy to get around, friendly, very good looking in places and quite nice to live or even shop in.
So when they announced the huge new Westfield development, it was almost like they had got off with the best looking girl at the school disco. Nottingham and Leicester looked on jealously as to what massive wealth this new shopping mecca would bring them. But unlike with the retailer, Wilko’s you can’t always polish a turd.
I’m not saying Derby is a turd per se, but I am saying that what they did was built a huge great homogenous monstrosity in the heart of a lovely city that had no connection with the city itself. They built an out of town soulless shopping experience in the heart of a city that was full of soul. It had no connections to the outside world. They drew their best retailers from the streets into the centre and in doing so, pulled out its heart. They forgot what made Derby both different and great and with 22% of their shops empty, are now reaping the rewards of their greed, stupidity and short sightedness.
The story with Margate is remarkably similar. A lovely little east Kent seaside town that had lost its sparkle, become the home to bail hostels and low end living and with its obvious lack of investment over the previous few years saw huge ££££ signs ringing in front of its eyes when they allowed Land Securities to build the monstrous Westwood Cross between its main towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs.
Again, they dragged the heart out of the towns, Margate suffered most as it was already in decline anyway, but all saw their multiple retailers leaving in droves to create even more homogenised and soulless developments for us to travel to and endure.
But in recessionary times, we all seem to work out that you can only own so much stuff and then it has to stop. Well, we stopped.
I am convinced that brands have to fight back by being different, not by being homogenised. I don’t want to look like the next person in the street, I want to look like me.
The future of branding is unbranded.
So the towns and cities need to fight back. Not through another pointless rebrand that will just get the local people and the local papers baying for blood, but by deciding what they stand for and then offering real incentives to drive the right people to deliver that into place.
If you want independent retailers, then the councils have to be flexible. Why not offer them rent free periods or even licenses rather than onerous long leases that scare the start ups away. If you are thinking about starting a small business, would you feel comfortable about immediately signing a lease that commits you to five years of rent payments whether it works out or not? No me neither.
Business rates could help too. At present, any business pays 48.5p for every £1.00 of assumed rental value in its business rates. So if it’s arbitrarily decided that your space should be rented at £10,000 per year, you would have to pay £4850 in business rates over and above any rental or lease payments. But again, in recessionary times, this space is worth nowhere near what it has been in the past, so there needs to be a huge degree of flexibility exercised here. If landlords are having to take almost zero rent to get retailers back into spaces, surely the rates should be calculated on what they actually pay, rather than what they should be paying in some imaginary, ideal world economy?
Margate and Derby have a glut of retail space, so they need to make it incredibly attractive to independents to come along and give it a go, without the huge downside risk they would normally face, so that independently minded people will come back and begin to shop there. In my mind, only something as radical as this will get the spaces trading again. No amount of art in the windows will do this, but all credit to Margate for starting to make empty shops at least look more attractive.
Empty spaces are self perpetuating. Fewer people will take the risks of setting up and as such, fewer people come to their to shop in the first place.
As with any recession, this is a chance for Derby and Margate to define their character. They have already sold their souls and found that it isn’t as great or profitable an experience as they once hoped. Lets hope they take this chance now to recover their fighting and independent spirit and maybe even save their souls.