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Marketing Market Towns

Reversing the decline of small town centres.

Have you wandered down the high street of a market town lately? What are your thoughts on the state of the offering? One estate agent after another? Overrun with charity shops? Or worse still – empty, boarded up units?

Local shops have seen a dramatic decline over the last 20 years, associated with the growth of out-of-town shopping centres and the increased mobility of the population. Over 73% of the households in England & Wales own at least one car, and people are using them.

Just think of the businesses no longer on the high street – travel agents are struggling against fierce online competition, food stores to out-of-town super/hypermarkets, and hardware store to large DIY sheds. And local councils have had to make up the shortfall in income by raising business rents and rates, driving some businesses to bankruptcy.

A Business Model.

Business guru Michael Porter developed a generic strategy to demonstrate the way businesses can beat their competition.

Cost Leadership – in this classification, a company will drive its costs down, usually passing savings to the customer. This is usually the model used by out-of-town retailers, with companies such as Asda/Walmart, Primark, etc, all exponents of it. Local businesses often fail to compete here as they do not have the same purchasing power.

Differentiation – this approach differentiates a business by giving it a unique identity. This model can be applied to a town for example in becoming "famous" for offering a certain type of business, product or service.

Differentiation could be the means of saving the high street. Some towns become famous for particular types of shops, for example antiques, books, etc. This is great for attracting outsiders to the town, but does not sustain the everyday needs of local residents.

When you visit an interesting town, with narrow streets full of quirky shops, you tend to remember the experience. The Lanes in Brighton remain quirky and continue to attract local and visiting shoppers.

Responsibilities.

It is local entrepreneurs who will develop and build these quirky businesses, leading to local teashops as opposed a Starbucks, a greengrocers as opposed a Sainsbury Local, or a bicycle repair and retail shop instead of Halfords.
It is the job of the local town and district councils to encourage this entrepreneurial spirit, giving local businesses a chance in terms of lower rents and rates, access to business development expertise and a regular feed of local consumers.

Runnymede Borough Council, for example, runs a business forum for local companies. This provides them with access to cheap training, networking, and the ears of the local politicians. Business in Runnymede appears to be booming.

A number of towns and villages run loyalty programmes, competitions and other programmes to encourage a sense of local support. The Hampshire village of Grayshott has run a successful loyalty programme for a number of years, called Buy In Grayshott (BIG). This is run by local business people, for local businesses and consumers.

The local council also has to help in bringing customers to the businesses – out-of-town shopping centres often provide free parking, to shoppers. Going into town centres, however, adds to the cost of supporting local businesses. Many towns charge for parking to raise much needed funds. There is a fine line between raising funds and deterring customers.

Local consumers also have a part to play. If locals turn their backs on local businesses in favour of out-of-town centres or the Internet, their town centres will die. Use it or lose it!

Businesses have to understand the changing social environment. It has been reported that the British work the longest hours in Europe, so a traditional 9-5 shopping day no longer meets the needs of many consumers. Businesses must understand their customers and their real competition. Serve your community to survive!

Useful links

Buy In Grayshott - www.grayshott.com/news.html
Runnymede Business Partnership - ww2.runnymede.gov.uk/business/rbp/index/index.htm

About the Author.

Thom Poole is a Chartered Marketer and Fellow with the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and a member of the Marketing Society. A marketer with over 19 years experience in online marketing and web strategy, Thom is strategic marketing consultant for Jack Marketing Solutions, working with SMEs. He also teaches people web design from beginners to professionals, as well as CRM, eCommerce, etc. A regular speaker on the CRM and e-marketing event circuit, Thom has also written a book on ethical e-marketing, called "Play It By Trust". The book is available at the publishers as a hardback or download.

Article first published: Deepings News - Ghost Town (March 2006) and in the Daily Telegraph Business Club (April 2006)

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