New Views of Secondary Shopping

The photographs of NRPF Secretary George Nicholson have been shown at three solo exhibitions and also used to illustrate several books.

His latest book Open for Business, published by Civic Books, is a photographic snapshot of of Fulham’s North End Road and its market, with foreword by Evan Davis, BBC Economics Editor and Dragon’s Den presenter.

In the afterword, reproduced here in edited form, NRPF Chairman Chris Brearley CD discusses the often misunderstood topic of secondary shopping areas and their prospects.

North End Road in Fulham and the surrounding streets run like a spine through this busy part of west London. It is not just the diversity of shops, small office suites, restaurants, cafes, hairdressers, specialist suppliers, doctors and dental surgeries, health clubs and market stalls located there that stands out. A rich mix of people running a range of businesses – large and small – all contribute to creating an amazing cornucopia, rarely found on main street.

Indeed, a national study by the National Retail Planning Forum – the first of its kind – The Role and Vitality of Secondary Shopping – A new direction – in 2004, revealed that what are called “secondary areas” in planners jargon, have a much wider diversity of retailing and services than the prime areas, suggesting that they play a vital part in the retail offer of a town. The research explored the situation in towns as diverse as Exeter, Seaton, Sutton, Reigate, Birmingham, Doncaster and Bolton. The study concluded that no town centre would be complete without secondary shopping, and also that these areas provided a vital service to the local community.

This is still not the received wisdom amongst many of those responsible for managing our urban areas, who have tended to view secondary shopping as marginal or having an inferior offer. In short, such areas have an “image problem” amongst decision makers. Part of this is due to a tendency to be dazzled by household brands. But mostly it is a product of a profound ignorance of what is actually happening on the ground. Far from being areas in decline, as the NRPF research revealed, these areas have not been declining over the last 10 years. What has however been happening, is a shift from retail units to service businesses. Interestingly, the study also revealed a steady decline in vacancy rates in recent years, and whilst there are few multiple retailers in secondary areas (although their number is now growing), they have increasingly become a preferred location for “specialist” retailers.

It could be argued that too much attention and investment is lavished on the core shopping areas, whilst not enough of either finds its way into adjacent streets. Certainly the NRPF study revealed that whilst improvements in the public realm and in the facilities for shoppers have been widely carried out in the prime retail areas in recent years, most secondary shopping streets have not been included in such improvement programmes. The result has been to reinforce the distinction between the prime and secondary areas, making the latter sometimes appear unkempt by comparison. The maintenance of buildings and shopfronts in secondary areas was also found to be generally inferior, pointing to the importance of the initiative by the NDC in Fulham in giving an uplift to the area.

Amongst the recommendations from the NRPF report are; the need to create coherent pedestrian environments; active management of change; improvements to the public realm; support for independent businesses; applying “asset management” principles to create long term value, and “niche marketing”. A more “hands on” approach to asset management by property owners, evolving more sophisticated planning polices, and promoting new mechanisms such as “Bids” or other forms of Town Centre Management were also recommended in the study.

So there is no shortage of ideas as to how to start to give a boost to secondary shopping areas. There is certainly no shortage of business acumen residing there either. All that is required is a deeper understanding of the role and vitality of these important areas. Hopefully this book and the actions it records will play a small part in that process.