I spy with my little eye …

Mary Portas, Queen of the High Street, is back on TV. This time she is heading to Liskeard in Cornwall. 

C4’s own pre-broadcast preamble tells us that Mary is in for a testing time. A box delivery scheme for a grocer and butcher. A ‘local shop’ as a community approach. And then we’re left hanging … just how on earth will Mary make all this work?

For those of us old enough to remember the excellent ‘Soap‘ (in its Billy Crystal heyday), it feels as if we are being left with the same unanswerable questions as each Portas Pilot spends down its tax payers’ money … drip by drip. Will Mary make it work? Will the butcher’s dog get fit? Will the grocer grab a nice pair …

‘Soap’ was a comedy. The demise of UK High Streets and the woeful support offered by successive governments at local, regional and national levels is anything but funny. I applaud Mary for her passion regarding High Streets. But that is all.

Inept planning policies, atrocious business rate management, councils lured by Supermarket sweeteners, retailers failing to move with trends and times … all have contributed to where we find ourselves. And the same story is repeated up and down the country, whether in Liskeard, Margate or any other town that has pitched for funds from either Mary’s Pilots … or the equally flawed Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) process.

A very different approach is required – but those in the decision-making process just don’t get it.

I’ve worked in the UK’s shopping and tourism industries for more than 20 years. In short, I’ve been around the block. Those who think a TV series will make a jot of difference are misguided. Equally, those who think ANY centrally driven regeneration policy will achieve anything more are also missing the point.

Living in Scotland, I took a look at Bids-Scotland.com – and you’d think all in the garden was rosy. It is not. There are 34 BIDs (established/in development). Of those, 20 have websites. On the very basic yet ever-so-essential level of communication, not one of those works properly on mobile, not one has 7-day-a-week social media interaction and none feature current offers/promotions from the businesses paying for the BID in the first place.

If BIDs are in place to improve business, they are going a funny way about it by ignoring shoppers and companies. I can’t begin to imagine how much money has so far been spent on utterly useless digital and social media strategies that are delivering precisely nothing. I will happily name and shame a handful with just a snapshot of the problem …

  • Bathgate – latest event listing is from 2011
  • Essential Edinburgh & Grassmarket – websites don’t work on a mobile and they’re showing out-of-date news
  • Elgin – advertising jobs, but no jobs listed
  • Falkirk – photo gallery is two years out-of-date
  • Inverness – social media postings are 10 days apart
  • Kirkaldy – 450 businesses listed across 123 categories … one business offer featured
  • Oban – 24th March flagged as ‘upcoming news’

The list goes on and on …

In Bids-Scotland’s own words: “The purpose of the plan is to deliver a step change in people’s ability to access the internet, enabling people to connect from their homes, businesses and while on the move …” Is that so?

Those making decisions appear pretty clueless as to what shoppers want and what retailers need. Action is required now. In 2011, DestinationCMS developed and launched Mall-to-Mobile. Today, it is delivering great results for landlords in the commercial property sector – and was recently recognised in the British Council of Shopping Centre’s marketing awards as a “a creative idea … which is current, tactical and totally achieves the objective of 365 days communication.” Yet trying to get that message across is like banging your head against a brick wall.

Mary’s pilots appear to be grounded whilst most in the public sector tinker. Some in the private sector tailor ideas to try and make a difference. But fundamental change will only result from soldiering – hard, dogged perseverance – by those with the foresight to meet and exceed the expectations of shoppers and businesses.

As a bemused, bewildered and frustrated tax payer, that is what I spy.