Retail Tourism

In survey after survey, one of the reasons given for visiting a place is the shopping. We have weekend shopping trips to places as far away as Dubai. Coach companies do day trips to places like the Metrocentre in Gateshead. Outlet stores form retail parks such as in Bicester or outside Chester. Even when people spend a two-week sun-filled beach holiday in Spain, shopping is one of the things people indulge in.

So it was with some interest that I heard most of the debate in parliament on Wednesday on the future of independent retail. Tourism is integral with shopping. Good shops attract us to them. But did I hear much about tourism? Despite the fact that many MP’s were from tourist areas, the answer was no.
There were some alarming figures quoted. 87% of all space approved by planners for retailing were from the top 4 supermarket chains; (this is an estimate from the Association of Convenience Stores) 12,000 independent retailers collapsed last year and throughout the UK, 85% of all businesses employ less than 10 people.

Why do this matter to visitors and we as tourists? Because a distinctive high street or retail park attracts visitors. We don’t necessarily visit a place that has the same set of shops as elsewhere (although I’m not sure that isn’t an error with regard to shopping in Dubai) but because it is different. Justin Tomlinson, MP for North Swindon, made a fleeting reference when he said that “they” needed to make the high street stand out to attract people traveling down the M4. For the most part, the 6 MP’s I listened to spoke of the problems of planning, taxation (including business rates) and charity shops. Now, I don’t deny they are important but so is the largely unmentioned tourism.

Take Dorking in Surrey as an example. It has one street, West Street, largely given over to antique shops and that is what attracts people other than locals to visit. It has become distinctive whilst still retaining the everyday shops that we demand as shoppers, chain supermarkets, and clothes stores. And the plethora of charity shops and estate agents. In some places I have been to, I would be hard placed to identify the place I was in because many look the same. They perform a local need in supplying everyday items but as for attracting visitors, forget it. It sometimes seems that we, in our countries, prefer uniformity to individuality. Yet Bond Street or Camden Passage in London attracts people solely because of the shopping; two quite different sorts of the visitor. Look at the success of farmers markets in different towns and villages. Or food fairs and shows. Or the appeal of antiques to Newark’s visitor numbers.

What might help some places would be themed distinctiveness? Why, for example, can’t outlet malls be redesigned to become based in town centers? Would a bevy of shoe stores combining hand-made ones with mass produced ones work in attracting people to the old shoe town of Northampton? It requires some far-sightedness and risk. But if it works…Then the tourist would come, the money would arrive and some town centers could be regenerated