It’s hardly new news that the British High Street has long been searching for a new identity – just like the beloved Cheap Street inSherborne. Can you believe it was nearly 10 years ago that retail guru Mary Portas was commissioned by the (then) Prime Minister, David Cameron to revive town centres? A decade later and the impact of Coronavirus is accelerating its decline. According to the BBC, market intelligence firm Springboard has suggested there was a 40% drop in footfall in July. We’ve seen many familiar names go into administration, like Laura Ashley, Oasis and Virgin Media, while countless small businesses and sole traders struggled to survive. Conversely there’s been an up to 40% rise in online sales.

But if the High Street as we know it is on its way out, shouldn’t we just accept change is natural? After all, we started switching from grocer shops to supermarkets in the 1950’s and now they’re the norm – although retail parks are often criticised for taking the heart out of towns. So what is it that evokes such fondness in us for this row of shops and cafes?

One reason is that it originated a safe space to meet – and is still seen as that today. ‘The High Street came about in the 1870’s,’ explains social historian Juliet Gardiner. ‘Because of urbanisation, people no longer had the facilities to grow food themselves.’ Then with the Suffragette movement in Edwardian times, shopping became an important leisure activity for women because they wanted somewhere respectable to go in their free time, unaccompanied by men. As a result, tea shops and department stores were born.

Thus, modern retail has historically provided spaces in which people can come together to talk and eat, as well as do business – activities so important for our wellbeing. However, just as fast fashion overtook haberdashers in the 1960’s, we aren’t spending our time and money in the way we used to – and the pandemic accelerated this trend dramatically. But there is hope. Many small operators who were forced to pivot during lockdown used social media to their advantage and if others could embrace similar strategies to combine the virtual and ‘in real life’ worlds, this could result in a thriving modern high street.

It’s all about thinking, and in many cases working, on your feet. Take Jane Wood, the owner of Oliver’s Coffee Shop in Cheap Street, who suddenly found herself running the business entirely by herself after furloughing her staff. ‘She was using Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to advertise the fact that the business was still here and that she was cooking and making cakes,’ says her manager Mandi Domoney, holding the fort while Jane takes a well-earned rest. ‘Instagram was particularly effective – she put a picture of a sponge on over Easter and had 18 orders that day. She’d put up a photo of a traybake of brownies and they’d be gone within the hour. People were looking for comfort and familiarity and Jane could provide it quickly.’ She cemented her place in people’s affections by being visible in this time of crisis which should stand her in good stead for the future.

Social media executive Millie Neville-Jones, from Sherborne marketing agency Lolly, explains how several other local businesses also harnessed the power of social media too, citing Vineyards, the independent wine shop in Sherborne, who started broadcasting virtual wine-tastings on Instagram Live and were really successful in keeping in contact with their customers. ‘They were able to talk directly to locals but also reach a wider audience,’ she explains, ‘and were authentic and spontaneous which is what you need to be.’

It wasn’t only the High Street businesses that embraced social media though – the self-employed and the creative, were equally inventive. The Jerram Gallery introduced virtual tours. Dorset artist Paul Newman, also an event co-ordinator for Somerset Art Works, took part in the #artistsupportpledge on Instagram, where artists sell their pieces at more affordable prices ‘something we don’t usually do because we are careful not to undervalue our work,’ says Paul. Once they have sold £1,000 worth of their work, they pledge to buy another artist’s creation, keeping the money flowing. For Paul, the experience of selling via social media has boosted his confidence and skills when it comes to promoting his work and he hopes to incorporate this into the way he works when things ease fully.

32-year-old personal trainer Craig Hardaker, from Sherborne, also thrived – eventually. ‘Looking back, I panicked when lockdown was first introduced,’ he remembers. His business, Communifit, runs classes for all ages and abilities but specialises in teaching fitness in nursing and care homes. His work is as much about community as it is wellness, having created fitness programmes for the elderly when he noticed his grandmother wither away in a home. ‘I wondered how I was going to survive, as I obviously wasn’t able to go into teach face-to-face any more.’ But as he had over 17K followers on Instagram, he soon realised that he had an established network of people he could reach out to. This meant he quickly spread the word that he was running virtual classes and personal training sessions, even instructing a 92-year-old lady using FaceTime, which he describes as ‘pretty special.’ Craig felt comforted that he had a lot of people rooting for him and that the Sherborne business community supported each other online through this time too. Together they created an Facebook account called Sherborne Viral Kindness, in which many businesses and residents participated in doing good works for each other – you may have been one of them.

So, where the High Street was once innovative in providing physical communal spaces for connection, it seems the internet can now also facilitate that urge we have to interact in a changed world, especially if we combine both elements of virtual and real-life. Some companies already do this very successfully; we like to think that Lodestone Property has balanced the perfect combination of old and new. Simon Neville-Jones, our Dorset manager, feels that the marriage of physical offices alongside using social media to communicate with clients has increased our reach. He also has a personal connection to Sherborne, ‘It is my local high street, so I have a keen interest in it and if businesses could continue to use both the old and new ways of business, there’s a very promising future ahead.’

I couldn’t agree more.

Catherine Rapley

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