First in a series of informal discussions with Esher’s retailers Life on the High Street – Giro

It doesn’t matter what political party you support, we are all equally concerned about the future of our High Street. We thought it would be interesting to speak to retailers at the sharp end to find out what drives them in these straitened times. This is the first of a series of articles that are deliberately non-political. The fact that they are on our website doesn’t mean the interviewees are supporters of the Esher Residents Association.

There’s a belief that online sales are the High Street’s death knell and that only an ‘Amazon Tax’ can save it. Honestly, does anyone seriously believe that governments of any colour will put those taxes back into the High Street? History tells us that they won’t.

Retail experts think that businesses need to be more innovative if bricks and mortar are to remain a part of the fabric of our daily lives. It’s certainly happening in the US where Procter and Gamble, has reinvented the mundane old dry cleaners. With 24 hours drop off and collection and every personal service the busy, time starved consumer might need, Tide Dry Cleaners is innovation in a category not known for mould breaking.

Again, in the US, having acquired Wholefoods, Amazon has moved into bricks and mortar grocery shopping and this time you don’t need to queue to pay. Amazon Go clocks who you are, what you put in your basket and automatically bills you. It has ten US stores and is already causing waves in the UK High Street – with Sainsbury’s scrambling to hook up with Asda and M&S desperate to make its home deliveries work by signing up with Ocado, before Amazon Go reaches us.

Martin Newman author and member of KPMG/IPSOS Retail ThinkTank describes a mix of problems across the country, all of which are relevant to Esher’s High Street.

“The high street isn’t going anywhere – and it certainly isn’t dying. Yes, it’s in need of an upgrade, as consumers are looking for ‘experiential’ retail. They increasingly want to be entertained and engaged during the shopping experience.

We need to completely rethink how our infrastructure works. Firstly, landlords need to be more flexible with their leases, particularly in city centres, enabling artisan and independent retailers and pop-ups to fill the empty spaces on the high street. 

It also requires local authorities to re-think parking charges and consider providing free parking – at least for key shopping periods. In my experience, and with more than 35 years advising retailers, our high streets need a better mix of food and leisure destinations – and, dare I say it, fewer charity shops? Shopping is an experience, a leisure activity and a relaxation method. Viewing it pragmatically as a ‘buy and leave’ scenario fails to understand customer behaviour”.

Residents on Next Door are clear what they want on the High Street. Unsurprisingly, it’s independent butchers, bakers, a deli and a bookshop – the latter, according to the Daily Telegraph Property pages, being the surest sign that one is moving into a welcoming, vibrant community.

So, what does innovative mean in the context of Esher’s High Street? For some retailers it will be the nature of what they sell – Castelnau Tiles, soon to open, may become a destination store and a welcome respite from Topps Tiles and for others it’s having a strong, newsy online presence, like Bernard

For Giro, our very own cycling and coffee shop, it was spotting a gap that nobody else was filling and being brave enough to take a risk. 

Jordan Addison and Neil Goodman started Giro with the barest of business plans, but a strong sense that what they were creating would work. 

“We’re keen cyclists and thought it’d be great if there were somewhere open early doors for riders to meet” says Jordan Addison.“Nowhere else was doing fresh food, speciality coffees and fresh home-made cakes – we knew it wouldn’t suit everybody, but that some would respond well’. 

Their strongly held view that the person who walks through the door is more valuable than the transaction seems to work. Last year they celebrated their fifth year in business”.

However, a great idea isn’t enough. It’s tough on the High Street. 

“Like many retailers on any High Street, we have challenges and we have to fight every day”. Addison continues. “Rent and staff costs are expensive and business rates extortionate. That’s simply a reflection of what’s going on in society. It’s struggling, but if you go to Westfield or Guildford it’s still very, very busy. People may be spending less, but they will seek out the experience of retail. 

Last Black Friday, statistics from Barclaycard showed that transaction numbers were up, but overall spending down. People are not hibernating”.

He does see opportunities to help the High Street. “Esher has a village high street on a dual carriageway. A recent traffic survey showed that the majority of the traffic is a result of accessing the A3 at Oxshott and Hook. However, this doesn’t necessarily need to be prohibitive in the future of the High Street. With the right vision, planning, and partnerships, Esher could see a reinvigoration of the area that would benefit both businesses, residents and visitors alike. Other local towns such as Walton have set a wonderful example of what is possible in re-energising an area with locally-driven ideas and planning. 

We’d like to see a local farmers’ market, a greengrocer and a baker, but like many high streets, perhaps this is proving difficult as rent and rates are so high. Perhaps there could be local incentives to bring these businesses in”.

Meanwhile, Giro’s next big event is their Esher High Street Festival which coincides with Ride London on 4 August. Since the roads are closed there are stalls and activities for all the family as well as stands from local businesses. There will, of course, be plenty of fresh home-made cake and coffee.

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