THE WAY I SEE IT #10 : By Darren Murphy

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RECENTLY I’ve received a number of emails and texts and been stopped a few times on my way to the shops by people who want to suggest topics for my blog. I don’t have a problem with this, and many folk have interesting views and I’m more than happy hear them out. In fact, I quite like it; it shows people have a genuine interest.

Over the last few weeks an increasing amount of people have been asking me to write about one subject in particular – “The death of Hawick High Street.”

Firstly, let’s not be too hard on our town. The reason being it isn’t just Hawick High Street that is struggling – it’s a nationwide problem. And although high streets are something of a national treasure in Britain, it’s widely recognised these once-bustling shopping areas are facing extinction.

A combination of reasons has culminated in the decline of British high streets. The economic downfall has played a significant role as well as our ability to purchase goods with the click of a button from internet businesses. Although I advise against doing this intoxicated, I once received a delivery containing five hundred tadpoles. I had no recollection of making this purchase thankfully I managed to sell them to the spawn shop. (Bad joke, I know.)

Extortionate business rates and landlords rents are crippling small local companies, while rising costs, coupled with little or no increase in basic wages, mean that people are less likely to treat themselves, and often can only stretch to buying the essential items.

As if that wasn’t enough, long-standing local businesses are being outmuscled by larger UK-wide firms, who can sell items at a lower retail price. In Britain, one in every six stores now sits vacant and, worryingly, that figure is expected to rise.

I’ve also no doubt that high street concerns are amplified in Hawick because of its location and the non-existence of a quality route on which to travel through the region. The roads linking Edinburgh and Carlisle are a disgrace, but that’s another matter.

At best the future for the traditional high street is bleak, but that’s not to say rejuvenation can’t take place.

Obviously landlords need to start getting serious about lease prices and business rates need to come down a considerable amount, but this alone isn’t going to spark life back into dwindling community thoroughfares. Towns need to play to their strengths so to speak, what consumers want and need is a question which has to be asked. A local campaign to get the community involved wouldn’t go a miss.

In essence it’s market research but a survey distributed locally to find out what sorts of things consumers are missing out on would give local entrepreneurs an idea of what kinds of businesses were more likely to work. I also believe a campaign aimed at getting consumers to shop locally would be a start. Especially in small towns like Hawick, where people are proud of their heritage. After all, folk are still spending but maybe need a little more encouragement to do it locally.

Modernisation is another key aspect in the revival of our high streets. No country in Europe buys as much online as British consumers do and this is something local retailers have to take into consideration. Although I have to admit that this statistic may have been enhanced by a significant amount of British women purchasing Fifty Shades of Grey, online!

It’s the age of information and anyone purchasing an item wants to find out about it before they hand over their hard-earned cash. Local businesses should take note, and if they don’t want to be left behind they need to be able to provide modern ways of drawing in consumers. Websites with information on what they stock, prices, whether items can be delivered, and even mobile phone apps would all be a step in the right direction. If high street stores want to survive I believe it’s vital they move with the times, otherwise they’re going to go under.

Another problem that is seriously hindering high street growth, and particularly in Hawick, is the awful sight of vacant shops. Sure, potential occupiers need to see the to let signs to know that the premises is available, but if shop owners cleaned up their act and installed imitation displays (sometimes referred to as shop jackets) it would not only make high streets more attractive but it would also give potential retailers an opportunity to envisage their business in that particular shop.

Ultimately there’s no quick and easy way to save traditional high streets, and I feel some places will sustain irreparable damage to their retail futures. But let’s hope Hawick can pull through.

Use it or lose it folks. There’s no way the government is going to step in to save our high streets, so it’s up to the public to ensure the longevity of traditional high street shops, or at least that’s the way I see it.