A Happy High Street?

Our urban environments are always evolving and Primrose Hill is no different. Local businesses make a significant contribution to the unique village lifestyle enjoyed by Primrose Hill residents. Micael Johnstone explores the trends driving some of the Hill’s recent changes and looks at ways in which local shops and restaurants can continue to thrive.

Walking through Primrose Hill on a sunny day and browsing the diverse range of shops and restaurants is one of the best ways to unwind in London. The village is one of the few neighbourhoods left with bustling independent stores and no major high street chains. It’s not been easy: some of the Hill’s long-standing residents may remember the hard-fought battle in the late 1990s to keep out chains like Starbucks while Hampstead neighbours were losing their fight to prevent McDonald’s from opening. Preserving this uniqueness is something that local residents and retailers feel strongly about. But pressures on local businesses are mounting, and empty storefronts are a daily reminder.

In recent years some long-standing independent businesses have closed, with a number of shops now standing empty and more established brands like Space NK and Cowshed moving in. Sesame and Cachao, both mainstays of the village for a number of decades, have been forced to close, with locals I’ve spoken to particularly missing Sesame’s relaxed vibe and variety of organic options. In recent weeks the homeware store Richard Dare has changed hands, and the beauty salon Prim has also closed, leaving many of my local friends worrying whether Primrose Hill may go the same way as most other local high streets, with homogeneous chain stores, interspersed with boarded-up buildings.

Property prices in London continue to outperform the rest of the country ‒ good news for our many local estate agents plus owners and landlords, but not for business tenants who struggle to cope with large rent hikes. Significant rental increases were the final straw for many of the independent Primrose Hill retailers that have now departed the high street. Other significant challenges for local shops include the continued growth of online retail and a hike in business rates. Consumer spending is predicted to fall in 2017, with a Brexit-related rise in inflation being one factor. The British Retail Consortium has estimated that that these pressures could lead to the loss of 900,000 jobs and see 74,000 shops close over the next decade, meaning that there will be an ever greater need to offer a unique experience to customers.

Queen of shops

Mary Portas, one of the UK’s most famous retail experts and a Primrose Hill resident, operates Mary’s Living and Giving shop for Save the Children on Regent’s Park Road. Portas is well known for her popular Channel 4 television show Mary Queen of Shops and has advised the government as its ‘High Street Tsar’.

“The shift from people no longer doing such a big weekly shop also means that retailers really need to understand their local market and offer the right products at the right price; this shift favours locals,” she says. “People are now aware of green issues ‒ what we are doing to our planet ‒ and are more aware of food waste,” she continues. “They are more spend-conscious, and people are starting to spend less on retail and restaurants too.”

Although Primrose Hill has some wealthy residents, Portas believes that the local shops should not fall into the trap of charging high premiums to customers. “Shops should be charging less. Customers know how your prices compare to major retailers, so don’t overcharge!” According to Portas, offering a unique experience is key to success for local businesses. “I would like to see our local supermarket offering local products from local suppliers. Experience is becoming an even more important part of retail. Humans want to connect, so it’s important to offer a social experience as well as expert product knowledge,” she says. “People want a space to be able to just hang out, read a book and maybe listen to some music as part of the shopping experience.”

Portas believes that the onus should be on the local council and central government to offer some degree of support to vital local businesses, to ensure the right mix for a successful high street. She thinks that it’s time for greater intervention to protect communities. “Government needs to decide what type of country we want and intervene to protect social infrastructure. This could be done by offering business tax rate discounts for small independents, and offering rates according to turnover rather than property value to protect entrepreneurs.”

 Rent hikes and local support

Local resident Phil Cowan previously ran the furniture store Primrose Hill Interiors, but was forced to close when faced with a big rent increase. He has also been actively involved in campaigns to prevent the closure of other local businesses and the arrival of chain stores like Space NK. “Rents have really got out of control,” he says. “Space NK is paying something like three times the market rate and this has changed the game, creating a non-level playing field. Independent businesses can’t afford to run loss-making operations and therefore simply can’t compete. Empty shops are also terrible for other businesses and the neighbourhood in general.”

Mary Portas with local shopkeepers

Another challenge for independent businesses is that landlords are often attracted to the higher prices they can get from converting commercial premises into homes ‒ the loss of Triyoga Primrose Hill being a prime example. Cowan would also like to see greater power for local governments to step in to support long-standing local businesses that have particular value to their local communities.

What can Primrose Hill residents do to support local businesses? “Shop local!” says Cowan. But there are things that retailers and restauranteurs should be doing too. “It’s important that businesses listen to their customers and evolve to meet their changing needs. Specific product expertise and knowledge helps create a bespoke customer service and a unique experience.” And how about the internet? “An internet presence is essential and provides a low-cost way of achieving the scale that the likes of Space NK can achieve by having so many stores.”

Forward-thinking landlords

And what about the role for business landlords? Well, it seems that some are more forward-thinking than others. Tony Evangelou, owner of a number of premises on the high street, including the now empty Cachao, was approached to give a property-owner perspective, but did not respond to the request.

Matt Storey, landlord of Press Boutique on Erskine Road, was more forthcoming. Storey and his family live above the shop and have a personal stake in ensuring that the community retains its unique, diverse identity. “Because we live above the shop it’s important that we find a business and business owner which fit with us, the family,” he says. “After all, we share a building together and we’re going to be neighbours. Ultimately any tenant–landlord relationship is commercial at its core. But it doesn’t have to stop there. To get the best out of any relationship, you have to have regular, open and honest discussion on both sides.”

Storey admits to finding the increasing number of empty premises in the neighbourhood and issues with squatters “depressing”. “It’s the old broken windows theory,” says Storey. “Empty buildings look uncared for and ultimately have a negative impact on the whole area. The old William Hill betting shop has been empty for as long as I can remember. Given the length of time it’s been sitting there, is anybody really surprised that squatters moved in? So, I suppose the question is, why do the shops sit empty for so long? Unrealistic rent expectations?”

But surely a property owner has a right to get the best return on their investment? “Landlords generally get a lot of bad press,” he says. “In some cases, I suspect this is justified. At the end of the day landlords have made the investment to buy, taken on the risk, and often have mortgages to pay on those properties. They have to make a return on that investment. The challenge, however, is striking the right balance on that return.”

Storey feels that local residents also share the responsibility for ensuring that businesses remain viable. “I often hear people locally bemoan the loss of shops, but how do you, the community, shop? As a nation, the percentage of what we spend online increases year on year. The bottom line is, if you want a vibrant high street, you have to shop in it!” 

Mary Portas’ three top tips for local businesses

  1. Don’t overcharge: offer the right products at the right price.
  2. Customer experience is vital: offer expert product knowledge and insights.
  3. Give people a social experience: humans want to connect!

And a question from Mary to our readers…

What type of shops do you want to see come to Primrose Hill? What do we need?
Help us reach out to potential new retailers! Get in touch via editor@onthehill.info

 


Words Micael Johnstone
Main photograph Sarah Louise Ramsay www.slrphotography.co.uk

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