Over recent years there have been many comments from local residents yearning for Much Wenlock retail outlets and pubs long since closed. There are many reasons for their demise including changing shopping habits, external influence and proprietor family circumstances. I am sure that when Wenlock residents stopped doing their “out-of-town” shopping in Wellington or Bridgnorth and started using the new Telford Shopping Centre it had some influence on what happened in Wenlock High Street. The advent of the drink-driving laws, the smoking ban and cheap booze being sold in supermarkets had a significant influence on the number of viable rural pubs.
Of course, the trading style of shops and pubs has changed from that which our grandparents knew. Hygiene regulations mean that milk is now sold in sealed containers. Few retailers other than greengrocers use brown paper bags. And you’ve got to travel a long way to buy a couple of yards of bias binding…!
One of my early bosses used to say “the only permanent thing is change”, and experience shows that he was correct. And the pace of change is getting faster and faster. The World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, Amazon was founded in 1994 and Tesco Direct started in 2000.
All of these innovations have had a major impact on the face of the UK High Street. They’ve transformed shopping habits in the developed world – and Much Wenlock is not immune from these changes. Our High Street is heavily reliant upon visitors to the town and for it to thrive we must ensure that the retail offer is contemporary, varied and vibrant.
The number of businesses now openly on the market, together with two closed pub/restaurants (George & Dragon and The Fox) is surely an indication that all is not well. Happily, whilst drafting this, I understand that The Fox has reopened and that the George is being relaunched by a local businessman. The imminent closure of Barclays, the last bank in town, compounds the challenge faced by our retailers.
The Office for National Statistics in July 2018 shows that the value of on-line food shopping is showing an increase of 9.4% year-on-year. On-line sales comprise 5.6% of total food sales – and both of these percentages are on an upward trajectory. Non-food growth online is much higher than food. Recent years have seen the rapid growth of home delivery by the big national grocers. And you can be sure that every virtual supermarket shopping trip with a van delivery to a Much Wenlock door (UK average basket value £64.90 in 2016 according to analysts Kantar Worldpanel) has an impact on Much Wenlock food retailers’ takings.
This isn’t an option for all, but some of our local traders have sought to broaden their appeal by having an online presence, and some are prominent on social media. Others have taken bolder steps and established transactional websites, meaning their offer is available day and night, and without customers making a physical visit to Much Wenlock. They include Twenty Twenty Gallery, Croft Design, Penny Farthing Gifts and Much More Books.
Nonetheless, there must be a concerted effort to stimulate trade in the town. Unfortunately Much Wenlock Chamber of Trade has recently folded after nearly fifty years’ existence.
I therefore believe that the drive should come from the Town Council, which should have the tightest grasp on the ebb and flow of local conditions. The Town Council has worked on this successfully in the past. At the Town Council’s April meeting I referred to the food markets having folded. I was assured by the mayor that this is far from the truth – but where are they now?
Some time ago the Town Council undertook to monitor footfall – a fundamental measure of retail activity. The best measure is year-on-year comparison so it must be carried out at the same time each month or quarter. Where are the statistics? Only with the benefit of information can we hope to take decisions about how to reinvigorate the High Street. The Town Council announced it was going to hold a town promotion meeting in early February this year – what emerged from that?
We have good retailers – some of ours are award winning. We need to attract more.
I wrote along these lines to the Town Council recently, hoping that this would feature on the agenda of their September meeting. It did, and there was a fairly lengthy debate, supported by a thoughtful paper which was made available to members of the public. There were one or two misconceptions, for instance about the Christmas lights event, which demonstrate that dialogue with traders and the community is rarely time wasted.
I hope that the minutes of the meeting and the October Town Council article in the Wenlock Herald will convey the decisions that were taken. And I hope that the Town Council can take the community and the traders with them.