Shopkeepers in Lincoln could learn lessons from the innovative traders of Brighton’s Laines, Boxpark in Shoreditch and Spitalfield’s London, according to retail expert Corin Birchall.
Through his consultancy business Kerching! Making your till ring! Mr Birchall works with businesses across Europe, transforming and reinvigorating their sales and customer service operations.
Here, he gives Lincolnshire Live his lowdown on Lincoln…
For two days this month, Lincoln BIG teamed-up with the City of Lincoln Council to bring Corin Birchall to the city. His brief was to meet traders in Sincil Street, who were impacted by the extensive redevelopment of the area, and talk with them about how their businesses could survive and thrive.
Mr Birchall has worked in retail, sales and marketing for the past 20 years and has worked with brands like Harrods, House of Fraser and Debenhams. He is regular commentator on BBC Radio and writes specialist columns in retail press.
Since launching his consultancy in 2010, Mr Birchall has been recruited by local authorities to help re-energise entire retail developments, town centres and prepare London retailers for the 2012 Olympics.
He said Lincoln is “an attractive city to retail in” and said it would soon “be bolstered by the development of corn exchange and transport hub”.
“The development work being done around Sincil Street and the new transport hub is exciting and all businesses I engaged with were focused on the longer term benefits it will have on this side of the city,” he said.
“Despite best efforts by developers and the city council to minimise disruption, physically and commercially, the drop in footfall to this part of the city was dramatic.
“Whilst the drop in numbers was challenging, it was the type of shopper being displaced that was having the greatest impact, as many of the businesses on Sincil Street targeted shoppers who rely heavily on the local bus services.
“Interestingly, the temporarily relocated bus station was having a positive impact on High Street businesses approached from the level crossing.
“Lincoln has strong footfall and by and large vacancy rates are pretty low. There are a number of vacancies on Sincil Street where we focused our work, but this was not due to a lack of demand, but rather the landlord Coop were looking for the right tenants to help reposition this part of the city.”
Mr Birchall said Lincoln has all the hallmarks of a successful UK city.
“Naturally people complain about driving in and parking, but a day trip to Manchester or London will put such complaints in perspective. When the new 1,000 car park opens behind Sincil Street early 2018 this should improve city centre access considerably.
“What was interesting was that the city has ‘the feel’ of a large town. It is pretty compact, feels safe and has a charm to it often lost by bigger cities. This does lend itself to attract younger families.
“The retail mix in Lincoln is good. Key nationals are represented and there are clusters of strong independents. Acquisitions for the new development at the Corn Exchange, such as Cosy Club, are perfect.
“Lincoln has quite a traditional retail and leisure offer, given the size of the catchment area and there are some opportunities to create some exciting new store types and formats in the city.
“I would encourage entrepreneurs to visit Brighton’s Laines, Boxpark in Shoreditch and Spitalfield’s London. You will see some real innovation is store formats and the demographic these businesses are attracting. Brick Lane Market in London for example, is filled with young professionals and families on a Sunday morning.”
Mr Birchall said traders in Lincoln would benefit from adapting a more flexible approach to opening times.
“Many businesses close at 5 or 5:30pm, as we see in market towns,” he said.
“People working in the city until 5:30pm have a very limited retail offer to peruse on their way home. A number of independents on Sincil Street were closed by 4pm, despite the street being filled with passersby.
“Increasingly, the big cities are adapting to this, offering hours better suited to those that work and live in the centre. If not all week, certainly Thursday and Friday. I appreciate it will take a little time to re-educate local people to new trading times, but it would pay dividends eventually.”
Mr Birchall said there were also gains to be made for businesses who work towards being family friendly.
“Visit Lincoln has recently picked up on the potential for attracting families to the city, with the ‘Lincoln Loves Kids’ campaign. This is principally to encourage families into the city,” he said.
“I would support this, but would encourage retailers and leisure operators to think about the role they play in making their businesses family friendly. For example: Do you typically make a fuss of young children in your businesses? Do you offer any activities to keep them entertained? Do you offer aisles and entrances suitable for twin buggies? What are your toilet facilities like for young families?
“If we overlook this market, we will simply drive them to the outlets and large department stores. All consumers seek the route of least resistance.”
Mr Birchall said Lincoln’s events diary was “remarkable”.
“Lincoln is doing a brilliant job in terms of attracting day visitors to the city,” he added. “The extensive events calendar is quite remarkable and an example to other large towns and cities across the country. The investment made in the castle and cathedral ensure these will remain top UK tourist attractions for years to come.
“What is particularly pleasing is how Visit Lincoln and Lincoln BIG work together. I’ve not seen this work quite this well elsewhere. A great example is the Lincoln Knights Trail, spread across the city adjacent to businesses, they have brought the castle’s history to life, they encourage the exploration of history and thus appreciate the importance of Lincoln and its Castle in terms of British history.
“After all, if we hadn’t of won the battle of Lincoln, this article may well have been written in French!
Mr Birchall praised the city authorities for their efforts.
“I think the council, Visit Lincoln and Lincoln BIG work incredibly hard to create opportunities for local businesses, I would focus the spotlight on the businesses themselves to maximise on these opportunities.
“Get involved with the events, showcase your business or your personality at them. Work together to promote your part of the city or your range of complimentary products. Share your offers and promotions with Shop Lincoln and Lincoln BIG.
“At the point of my visit, the four banner spaces for promotions and offers on Shop Lincoln had two offers from local businesses, with no photos. This is a targeted platform for people looking to shop in Lincoln.
“Having spent some time with Lincoln City Council, Visit Lincoln and Lincoln BIG they would welcome business engagement with open arms.
“Retail is changing fast and cities need to be more dynamic to the changing landscape. Development work as we are seeing in Sincil Street and the transport hub is terrific, but that happens once a decade. We must therefore look within the existing urban landscape to accommodate change. Could central market accommodate a growing interest in street food, with city centre workers and students? Could businesses adapt trading hours to local people? Could street markets plug gaps in the retail offer?
“Market towns face a difficult decade as they adapt to the changing retail needs of local people. We are likely to see polarisation of retail centres. Lincoln is well poised to become one of the key regional centres, as it has to date.
“It is important, however, that it continues to focus on city centre experience, and be hungry and ambitious to introduce new trends and shopper behaviours coming from bigger cities such as London, Manchester and Leeds.
“With the recent investment and improvements to Lincoln, the city would be a prime target for brands currently not represented. For those businesses already trading in the city, the opportunities are very exciting.”