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Wednesday, 21 February 2018
THE future is bright for business in Henley, according to its new town manager.
Helen Barnett, who has completed her first six months in the role, says there is plenty of scope for retailers to thrive despite the increased challenges they face.
Business rates are to rise for the first time in five years on April 1, with some traders’ annual bills increasing by almost 10 per cent.
The charge, which is imposed by the Government, was blamed for the closure of several Henley businesses in 2016, along with rising rents and reduced footfall as a result of competition from the internet.
But Ms Barnett believes there is still demand for quality products and good customer service so traders who provide these will turn a profit.
She is employed by Henley Town Council and works with other local authorities, businesses and community groups to attract more visitors and increase footfall.
She says Henley benefits from a large number of tourists because it is a medieval market town with high-profile events like the royal regatta, the Henley Festival and Rewind and businesses must take advantage of this.
Ms Barnett, who spent 10 years as head of marketing at the Bracknell Regeneration Partnership, says: “I think Henley is an amazing place to visit and trade in.
“It is very attractive and somewhere people want to visit — we just need to ensure that businesses are performing as well as they can.
“The town is known for things like the regatta and the festivals so it’s about promoting them as much as possible while making the most of the increased footfall.
“For example, we want to ensure regatta visitors are popping into town to pick up some shoes or a hat on the way in, then maybe stopping at a restaurant for dinner afterwards.
“I’m looking to get better signage installed in the town centre so that it’s easier for people to navigate and we’ve just sent away the signs at the main entrances to the town for refurbishment.
“We will do whatever we can to attract more people but the retailers have to help themselves by actively drawing those people into their units.
“It’s about good service, the depth of the offer and actually being open when there is demand. Some shops that could make most of their money on Sundays because of tourism but if that’s when they’re closed, they won’t make anything.
“The increase in business rates is going to make things harder but I think some owners are going to have to get up a bit earlier. They all face slightly different challenges in different parts of the town but it’s a similar situation all over the country.
“I appreciate that it’s hard when you run your own business, though. You have to be involved in the day-to-day aspects as well as all the administrative tasks while staying cheery for the customers, which is very demanding.”
Although online shopping is growing more popular, Ms Barnett says people still enjoy visiting shops for the experience and the chance to handle or try goods before buying them.
She says: “If your shop is beautifully laid out and you engage well with customers, they will want to come back. It adds enormous value if you can give them advice and help them choose what to buy.
“Fluidity womenswear in Bell Street is a fantastic example of that. They have a lot of famous clients and will always help people choose something special for a particular occasion. There are some great wedding venues in Henley but so much the better if people can buy their wedding outfits locally as well.”
She says Henley town centre is in good health with only 4.2 per cent of its retail units currently vacant, less than half the national average of almost 11 per cent.
This is down from 7.8 per cent in August last year and the town’s all-time low of about 10 per cent in 2009, when the Henley Standard ran its Think Local campaign.
At least 10 new businesses have opened since Ms Barnett took the job in September.
They include estate agent Penny & Sinclair, solicitors Blandy and Blandy, business consultancy Moving Ahead and the Henley School of Art, all in Hart Street, maternity shop JoJo Maman Bébé in Market Place, the Fitness Space gym in Station Road, womenswear shop East in Bell Street, the Willow Basket whole foods shop in Friday Street and delicatessen Spoon and womenswear shop
VH & Co, both in Duke Street. Furthermore, the Station House pub in Market Place has re-opened under a new tenant while the Vintage Look antiques outlet has moved from Market Place Mews to Hart Street.
It’s hoped that the former Hearns shoe shop in Market Place, which has been vacant for about seven years, will soon be re-occupied as the owner is refurbishing it.
Mrs Barnett says: “It’s normal for most towns to have a certain degree of ‘churn’. For example, Barbara Easton is closing her womenswear shop in Duke Street because of retirement but I’ve already had a lot of enquiries about the unit. There are plenty of people who would like to move into the town.
“We’re very pleased with the current state of things and, where possible, we’re encouraging pop-up shopping with events like the pop-up fashion week at the Old Fire Station Gallery, which proved very popular.
“We’ve also changed the configuration of the markets slightly. We still have the regular Thursday market and the farmers’ market but we’ve introduced a vintage market and an Italian market just to shake things up a little and bring in some extra footfall.
“We’re also running weekly Midsomer Murders tours over the summer, which will bring in a lot of people.
“Neil Ainsworth, landlord of the Argyll, which has appeared on the show, has done a great trade off the back of that — he’s a good example of somebody making the most of these things.”
Although Ms Barnett can’t choose the types of shops that open in Henley, she informs landlords and lettings agents about local demand in the hope of influencing their decisions.
She says: “Most of them are very receptive and willing to sit down for a chat. It’s about getting in there early to explain your goals because it’s too late once you find out someone is already lined up.
“It’s important to have a good tenant mix and bring in the kind of people we don’t currently have rather than more coffee shops or health and beauty businesses.
“It’s reasonably diverse at the moment but there are a couple of retailers that shoppers keep telling me they want in Henley and we will work hard to bring them in when the units become available.
“Henley is often compared witth Marlow, which has a branch of the White Company and I think it would be great to see that here. They’re a critical retailer who would attract
“We don’t need lots more high-end shops but it’s about having a few more national chains and a good variety of products and services for everyone. At the moment we don’t have many shops that appeal to younger people either.
“As far as possible, we want local people to be able to fulfil every whim and wish in Henley so that they don’t have to go anywhere else.
“That would reduce journeys to other towns, which would also be good for our air pollution issues.”
Ms Barnett, who is the fourth person to hold the position but the first to do so full-time, has attended almost 200 meetings over the past six months.
She has also set up a series of discussion forums for businesses, event organisers and commercial property owners to exchange ideas.
She has also organised seminars on various aspects of retail and marketing and updated the town council’s Visit Henley website to ensure it lists every event that is taking place in the area.
She says: “I’ve loved it — I’ve met lots and lots of interesting people and feel I’ve been able to make a difference in some areas.
“There’s obviously a lot more I’d like to achieve but it’s still early days and I find it fun and rewarding.
“The first challenge has simply been to make the right connections but I think that’s all in place now. I’ve given lots of presentations to various interest groups and have a lot more planned over the next few months.
“I regularly visit people in their units and help them where I can with particular issues.
“Some traders are happily getting by whereas others need some assistance, but my door is open to everyone — people are welcome to pop into the town hall and say hello at any time.
“My main purpose is to bring people together. Sometimes individuals or organisations can be working separately on similar projects without realising it, so, by being in touch with everyone, I can get them working together for their mutual benefit.
“It’s a very hands-on role and you have to roll your sleeves up and do things. It’s hard work and I’m not saying we can make all the necessary improvements overnight but I think we’re lucky that Henley is such a wonderful, vibrant place for visitors and residents alike.”
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