After a career in business and academia Dr Jackie Mulligan founded the award winning shopappy.com app and website. In this article, recently published on LinkedIn, she looks at the way events have become a part of placemaking that don't always work.
We agree - and she agrees with us, that events and activities that have been created to give a specific ROI really do help drive footfall and business.
Are events helping high streets
or are they just distractions?
From street food festivals to light parades, from races to heritage events - do local events really help our high streets? Or are they just distraction?
At ShopAppy we are privileged to get to meet lots of retail and all kinds of independent high street businesses, Associations, Councils and BIDs. We are inspired by the many organisations involved in regenerating and at times, battling to support their town and city centres. ‘Events’ are increasingly being used as the go-to strategy for regenerating towns. In some cases, the events feel like distraction. It feels like something I used as a new parent when my toddler would fall over and cry - “would you like a chocolate button??” I would ask panicking. Generally it was a short term tactic that temporarily made us both feel better, but after the sweet chocolate taste had gone, my child still had a bleeding knee.
I am not dismissing events. I used to lecture, present ,research and manage events. I love events and see the value they can bring to the image of towns, social cohesion, civic pride and in some cases, the economic impacts. There is clearly a business benefit to be had from events but it is not necessarily the sole purpose of events. The formula to gain benefits for small businesses is not that clear. Yet in spite of this lack of evidence about the tangible benefits for local retailers and services, events continue to be part (and sometimes a significant part) of investments and strategies to regenerate or revitalise towns and city centres. Events certainly attract footfall. But do all these events really attract spend? And does any of that real spend help the everyday and small businesses in our town centres?
How many events happen on Sundays or in evenings when businesses don’t typically open. Does that footfall translate to spend that day? In future days? Weeks? Months? Footfall is one thing, but without people spending in local businesses, they are not a solution – they simply make us look the other way.
Many high street businesses report a drop in customers during popular events, and those drops in footfall can be significant to businesses already losing money in this all-too challenging period. Of course, a cracking street food festival, or race is fantastic for gathering people together. But now it feels like time for all of us to ensure we can maximise those opportunities for small local businesses. Events should have strategies to get customers engaged in local businesses. In turn local businesses need to be ready to make the most of the opportunities for themselves. Whether they are adding to the events by providing fringe activities on their premises, dressing shop windows, selling tickets, creating trails or popping up their own stalls in those increasingly fashionable street food markets -every action can help.
Without a strategy of business engagement or a will from businesses to participate, events will bring people to your high street temporarily, and provide feel good, community connection, but will not provide short or indeed long term impacts on businesses. That’s fine if your objective is connecting communities. But in most cases, events set objectives related to economic impacts too.
Without strategy, events are like chocolate buttons, they make us feel good but they don’t stop our knees hurting after a fall.
Without strategy, events are like chocolate buttons, they make us feel good but they don't stop our knees hurting after a fall. And with so much investment, are we missing opportunities to fix the root causes of serious problems impacting high streets? Problems (to name a few) like planning policies that impact the retail and service mix? The location of retail that often de-centres our towns? Absentee landlords and high rents unfit for the local market? Rates that hit businesses before they even open their doors? Unfair taxation that disadvantage bricks and mortar businesses and changing customer behaviours towards online and home delivery.
Customers are changing. They are looking for experiences and businesses in local towns are in a better position than an out of town retail park or warehouse, to deliver those experiences. But whatever the event, a busy town or busy high street is no good if the shops are closed or empty. The best experiences can come from vibrant town centres, markets and high streets with or without events. To get those, we need to collaborate on more than events. We won’t need to rely on chocolate buttons, if we can work together to stop our town and city centres falling.
For our bit, we are working with organisations to address the opportunity of ecommerce and the challenge of the home delivery mind-set, which is undermining the social and economic value of shopping locally. We can’t force anybody to shop locally, but we can make local high streets more accessible to digital consumers -many of whom would prefer to spend locally (albeit online). We live in an online world, yet our small businesses in many cases lag behind. We are working hard to use digital to drive footfall providing convenience with a local conscience. ShopAppy is a way for local people and visitors to shop local online with easy click and collect in towns as well as book tables, events, activities and appointments. We are thinking outside the home delivery box and more towns, councils, BIDs and small businesses are joining us. We are part of a solution, but we invite you to tell us what you think on firstname.lastname@example.org, view our mission video or simply come visit ShopAppy.com or download the app. Supporting our local high street businesses, markets, town and city centres has never been easier. Like events, like policy changes, digital can help our High Streets and markets.