The Retail Ready People project means the future of the high street is in your hands

Dan Thompson
167886991 1 300x175 The Retail Ready People project means the future of the high street is in your hands

(Getty Images)

There are more empty shops on our high streets than ever before, says another report into the state of the nation’s high streets this week.

The regular stories about the death of the high street have led some retail experts, like former Iceland boss Bill Grimsey, to say it’s all over for the high street. Mary Portas, in her high street review for the government, says ‘The days of a high street populated simply by independent butchers, bakers and candlestick makers are over’.

But there is one group of people, who are passionate and willing to fight for town centres. They don’t see them as just failing retail space, but as something else. You’ll have seen them on your local high street, reclaiming the space from town centre wardens and reinventing the forgotten bits that the planners never finished. For anyone under 25, the local town centre is a vital part of growing up. It’s a place to socialise, to spend some time, not just shop. It’s accessible and affordable in a way other leisure activities aren’t.

But young people just aren’t on the radar for the experts. The Portas Review mentions young people just once, in a suggestion that youth clubs should relocate to empty shops.

So two national charities have created a way for young people to get involved in the debate about the future of the high street. vInspired are the UK’s leading youth volunteering charity, and they’ve teamed up with Retail Trust, the charity that looks after the three million people working in retail. Together they’ve created Retail Ready People, which asks young people to imagine what a shop of the future might look like – and then helps them create it, as a month-long pop up shop.

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the project, because as the author of Pop Up Business For Dummies I’ve got some practical experience which can help. What I don’t have is the imagination, enthusiasm and raw energy of a bunch of young people. We tried the project out in two locations, Brighton and Enfield. In both places, young people tore up the rule book, and gave thousands of volunteer hours to create shops which were about much more than just retail.

And we’ve just opened two more Retail Ready People pop up shops, in Rochdale and Leeds. The same thing has happened. Young people have spent weeks learning practical skills from retail experts, covering everything from customer service to social media, and window dressing to graphic design. In the future those practical, usable skills will help them to find jobs in retail, or to develop their own businesses as young entrepreneurs. But for now, they’ve taken those skills and used them to create something new.

Retail Ready People pop up shops are social spaces, giving as much of the shop over to space to hang out, have conversations, read books and listen to live music as is given to display products. That relaxed and friendly atmosphere is drawing the customers in, and the Leeds and Rochdale shops are smashing the targets for footfall they were set. And they’re selling more products as a consequence.

What they’re selling is interesting, too. Retail Ready People’s shops are full of things made locally. Beautiful art, as you’d expect, but useful things too. The Leeds store alone stocks clothes, lampshades, soap, bags, clocks and coathooks alongside prints by local artists. Everything has been designed or made in the city. In Brighton, it was even made in the shop, with a fully-functioning screenprinting workshop at the centre of the store.

That means that Retail Ready People shops are showing off the best of British micro-manufacturing. They’re providing a visible space for bedroom boffins, who are inventing neat products and producing them at good prices. Made In Britain, Retail Ready People is providing proof that manufacturing is back. Small scale for now, but remember that Jeremy Dyson spent 10 years making over 5,000 prototypes before his cleaners found mass market success.

Like Dyson, Retail Ready People is all about trying, testing and prototyping. That practical research by young people is laying the foundations for a new high street, one that goes beyond chain store retail and provides new forms of social and community activities. One that supports small-scale local industry. One that provides jobs with more worth than a zero-hours contract at minimum wage.

And despite what you’ve read about the death of the high street, that includes the independent bakers, who’ve provided cakes for Retail Ready People’s launch events. And in Leeds, you can even buy locally-made candles. Sorry Mary, but it seems that the days of the independent high street aren’t over, they’re ahead of us.

Tagged in: ,
  • realvikingking

    I have, from a professional perspective, witnessed the fall and fall of the High Street from the early beginnings of Associated Dairies (ASDA) in a small tightly packed store breaking the RPM stranglehold of the large producers. In every town, village or city, the High Street was the centre of activity – easily accessible and a socially active space. The unbridled growth of out-of-town shopping centres, plus the free-for-all Sunday trading, resulted in the central areas becoming no-go areas in the evenings and the social cohesion destroyed. We could have learnt from France but our politicians are too trammelled in their belief that ‘bigger is better’.

    I know Retail Ready People will provide an impetus for a return of the High Street. I am sure a lot of professionals would be very happy to provide help and support.

    Well done.

Property search
Browse by area

Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter