Business

Totnes: The way forward for the UK's ailing High Streets?

  • 8 January 2013
  • From the section Business
Shops in Totnes High Street
Totnes has far more independent shops than the national average

Beneath a chorus of church bells and seagulls, the steep hill of Totnes High Street is coming to life. This small Devon town is famous for being passionate about its local economy; it even has its own currency. And Totnes hit the headlines this year when it said a resounding "No" to High Street giant Costa Coffee.

Could this be the secret to a thriving High Street?

Totnes has a shop vacancy rate of just 6% - less than half the national average. Eight out of 10 businesses there are independent. Compare that to the national average, where around 68% of retailers are independent, and Totnes is definitely different. But the big question remains: is having so many small shops sustainable? Could this even work far away from the idyll? Would going independent save more British High Streets?

No. Not according to Arnold Wilcox-Wood. The manager of The Rock, a shopping and entertainment centre in Bury, Lancashire, says that the big names are the big draws.

"We would never even build a shopping centre without our anchor tenants - they bring in the volume," he explained. The Rock does have a number of smaller, independent stores, "but they feed off the volume of people coming to visit Debenhams or, M&S," he said.

Competitive edge

And there's certainly evidence of the UK's love affair with spending in the big stores. On Tuesday, British Retail Consortium figures confirmed that sales in December were pretty flat across the UK. But this week Debenhams, Next and John Lewis have all reported bumper results. It suggests that if we're willing to part with our cash anywhere, it's with brands like these.

Bakery shop owners Laurence Thorne and Lucy Hornse
The owners of Seeds2Bakery say independents like to work together rather than compete

The big companies do of course have a competitive edge - they have the buying power to secure the cheapest deals, and the capacity to support a loss when discounting. It's much harder if you're a one-man operation, but not impossible.

"There's a bit of a perception problem, but actually independents are very competitively priced," said Michael Weedon, from the British Independent Retailers Association. "They're more value-sensitive than other shops, and often group together to improve buying power."

And let's not forget that chain retails are vulnerable too. In just the last year Game Group, Peacocks, Past Times and Clinton Cards have all fallen into administration. Perhaps just as small shops need help from the big boys for footfall, the chains need independents in order to keep a High Street vibrant, lively and different. No one likes shopping in a clone town.

This is certainly true in Totnes. Lisa Hosking, who runs two independents on the High Street, Wild Fig Deli and Aromatika, a beauty products firm, thinks independents make Totnes a destination. "People travel here from all over; it makes people want to shop here."

Friendly

Darren Thorne and his partner Lucy Hornsey, from Seeds2Bakery, agree: "It's bringing people into town, but what's best is that all the retailers here are working together instead of trying to compete with each other."

Throughout the morning in Totnes there was evidence of this: the greengrocers were taking boxes of produce to the cafes, the bakeries preparing quiches for the delis. Everyone knew each other and were interested in one another's business plans.

It is this incredible amicability that sets Totnes apart. But it's much tougher in the real world of business.

Despite everyone claiming to love independents, most of us are hooked on supermarkets and chains - if only for convenience and value. Smaller retailers are a treat to be savoured, but not the saviours of our High Streets.

BBC Breakfast is visiting a number of High Streets across the UK this week to ask what kinds of shops ensure retail success. Coming up: could leisure trump shopping in our town centres, and what empty shops can become once the clearance sales are over.

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