RETAILERS in Henley are thriving despite the recession, says the new town centre manager, writes James Burton.
In his first six-monthly review, Peter McConnell says the outlook is generally positive in the face of rising overheads and competition from the internet.
He said: “You get flux all the time on the high street but we haven’t really seen anyone close in the past six months and we have got a couple of new shops about to open. Retailers are working blooming hard to make it work.”
Watch our video interview with Mr McConnell here.
Mr McConnell warned that businesses must continue to offer unique products and services as well as good customer service to stand out against online rivals.
He said: “Rather than go to a bookshop and get the latest J K Rowling novel, for example, people can probably go online and get it 10 per cent cheaper if they know where to look — and people are very internet-savvy in Henley. What needs to differentiate the high street is the unique offering and customer service, which a lot of shops here are actually very good at.
“If you get treated well and nicely, a lot of people don’t mind paying that extra.”
Mr McConnell said there were still challenges facing retailers and their customers. For example, high rents and rates were forcing small traders away from the town centre and rising living costs were deterring shoppers on low incomes.
“It’s always a struggle — that’s why you see all the major chains grouped around the main crossroads in town, where rates are highest, and the independent traders spread a bit further out,” he said.
“Small retailers have to make an awful lot of money before they can start making a profit — that’s difficult in the current climate because, despite our wealth, people are still spending slightly less or not as often.
“Office-based businesses are largely quite healthy but it’s still not an easy environment for retailers. We’re quite lucky with Henley being such a wealthy town and having people with a large amount of disposable income.
“However, we can’t generalise too much. I think there are people who can’t afford to shop in Henley, which is a shame. In the long term, we should be doing something about it.”
Mr McConnell is working on plans to bring more trade into Henley, including a shopfront improvement scheme where traders can apply for public money to spruce up their premises.
The grants would be provided by South Oxfordshire District Council and the town council and business owners would have to match the amount. A similar scheme offering grants of up to £2,000 was launched in Thame last year.
Mr McConnell also hopes to launch a Henley loyalty card before Christmas and is now seeking support and funding from councillors and businesses. Similar schemes have been running for more than a year in Abingdon and Thame and another was recently launched in Marlow.
Mr McConnell is also working with the Henley Partnership to promote the town as a year-round tourist destination with more events during the quieter autumn and winter season.
He has also renewed Henley’s links with Tourism South-East to help spread the word about its visitor attractions.
Mr McConnell will carry out annual surveys comparing Henley’s economic performance with similar market towns around the country.
He said: “I’m still very keen and motivated. It has been great meeting so many new and different people as well as many familiar faces in a different context.
“There’s an awful lot of energy and enthusiasm in Henley for improving it in any way possible and I think part of my role is to join the dots between people as well as launching new initiatives to keep everything vital and healthy.
“It’s about getting people to think differently about some of the things they’ve always done, which can be challenging, but people largely want to embrace change.
“That’s the great thing about Henley — everyone from shopkeepers to councillors wants it to be successful and they all work hard to make it a success.”
Mr McConnell is a marketing expert whose £16,000-a-year salary is paid by the district and town councils and the partnership on a two-year contract.
Councillor Judith Nimmo Smith, the district council’s cabinet member for economic development, who lives in Henley, said: “Peter has really hit the ground running. He is highly assiduous and very good at networking.
“He seems to be good at working on the ground and meeting people, not just coming up with big ideas.”
Julie Perigo, who chairs the partnership’s business and retail group, said: “In such a short period of time, Peter has been terrific — he keeps coming up with great ideas and he follows through with them.”
Henley town clerk Mike Kennedy said: “He has exceeded all expectations and in six months has achieved a phenomenal amount.
“The fact that he is liked and well-known in Henley has been a considerable advantage.”
Mr McConnell also runs retail marketing agency Footfall Services and helped bring the Wind In The Willows exhibition to the River and Rowing Museum 10 years ago.
His predecessor Oliver O’Dell resigned in August last year after town councillors criticised him for not achieving enough.
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