Kath's Occasions cafe inside Market Hall Shops, Chester-le-Street. Photograph by Graham Soult

Telling a positive story

In Chester-le-Street, Cestrian Estates – a forward-thinking property company, which owns commercial property throughout the town centre – has engaged CannyInsights.com to work with its retail tenants for 1.5 days each month since April 2017.

In January 2018, another key property stakeholder in Chester-le-Street – Bradley Hall, who manage the 60,000 sq ft St Cuthbert’s Walk shopping centre – commissioned us to undertake similar work there, thereby doubling our time spent on Chester-related activity to three days a month. This has given us scope to build new marketing links between the two schemes, and to better promote Chester-le-Street as an overall destination.

Key benefits that we are delivering include promoting the retailers and schemes via social media, providing digital skills training for the retailers themselves, and also giving advice and encouragement on how the retailers can best grow their businesses.

The project builds on earlier work conducted in Chester-le-Street in 2014, where we undertook a high-street audit for Chester-le-Street Business Association, recorded uses and vacancy rates, and highlighted priorities for improvement and action – many of which we are now addressing.

Market Hall Shops

For Cestrian Estates, the main focus of activity is Market Hall Shops, a small shopping arcade on the town’s Front Street. When we began working with the landlord, the physical fabric of the Market Hall needed some improvement, but it had started to build up a distinctive and interesting mix of attractive independent retailers.

However, the Market Hall was suffering from lingering negative perceptions – some dating back to its time, under previous ownership, as InShops – which were holding back investment and having a negative impact on the retailers inside. The Market Hall was also almost invisible online, mirroring the lack of digital coverage about Chester-le-Street town centre as a whole that we had highlighted back in 2014.

St Cuthbert’s Walk

St Cuthbert’s Walk is quite a different scheme in that it is anchored by national, multiple retailers, including Morrisons, Iceland, Boots and Shoe Zone, and is attached to one of Chester-le-Street’s largest town centre car parks.

However, it too features some excellent independents, such as Lou’s cafe and Belle Boutique, a shop selling distinctive women’s clothing and accessories.

Also, like Market Hall Shops, the scheme has had a longstanding issue with vacant units, and had no online visibility at all prior to our involvement.

Project activities

With Cestrian Estates, our work has included advising the landlord on the most essential and cost-effective improvements to the Market Hall, and occasionally acting as an extra communication channel between the landlord and his tenants.

Meanwhile, the newly created @MarketHallCleS accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are being used to share positive stories, amplify retailers’ own updates, keep the local community updated on progress, and find out what further changes current and potential customers would like to see.

Similarly, the @StCuthbertsWalk accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have sought to address misconceptions about the shopping centre – for example, by pushing the message about three hours’ free parking for all shoppers (which seemed not to be widely known), and countering the empty shops issue by highlighting the quality and variety of what is still inside the mall.

https://twitter.com/stcuthbertswalk/status/983432863591870466

Importantly, these social media accounts are not just posting updates about the respective schemes and their own tenants, but are also regularly highlighting other shops, businesses and events in Chester-le-Street.

Hence, Market Hall Shops and St Cuthbert’s Walk are both benefiting from cross-promotion by the other – for example, by the St Cuthbert’s Walk accounts encouraging shoppers to take advantage of its free parking to explore the rest of the town.

This approach recognises that if Chester-le-Street is to thrive, all businesses benefit from working together to build a positive digital footprint, and that the town will be more of a destination if potential visitors can appreciate the full extent of what it offers.

Impacts

In the first six months, improvements to the Market Hall included the creation of new shop units, repainting of communal areas, new carpet, the installation of free wi-fi, enhancements to the street frontage, and the arrival of a new café and independent retailers.

Retailers and customers are reacting positively to the changes, footfall is improving, and the number of vacant units has reduced.

In fact, after a year of working at Market Hall Shops, the number of occupied units has grown from 11 in April 2017 to 20 in April 2018.

This figure includes seven brand-new occupants (several of which have expanded to occupy two or three units).

Several retailers have also benefited from our one-to-one marketing support, with some now promoting their business via social media for the first time. Topics covered have included setting up Twitter and Facebook, photography tips for social media, and how to write effective tweets and Facebook posts. We have also supported the opening of new retailers with as much of a social media push as possible.

Measures of Chester-le-Street’s online visibility are already registering this increase in activity. In October 2017, the WDYT Digital Influence Index – which tracks Twitter and Instagram activity by retailers in 1,300 towns and cities across the UK, and champions how this translates into footfall – reported that Chester-le-Street had risen 70 places during 2017, to be ranked at 449.

Meanwhile, tweets by @MarketHallCleS are being seen an average of 17,000 times a month, and @stcuthbertswalk’s tweets 13,000 times, where previously there was no Twitter activity at all.

As we assist more town-centre retailers in becoming socially active, there is plenty of potential to grow Chester-le-Street’s digital footprint further.

We realise, however, that not all potential shoppers are online, and have therefore also sought to promote good-news stories from Chester-le-Street via more traditional channels. Our work in the town has been discussed in radio interviews, while stories about Market Hall Shops – based on press releases that we have written – have featured in The Journal, Chester-le-Street Advertiser and Northern Echo newspapers.

In turn, all the activity and buzz around the Market Hall and, increasingly, St Cuthbert’s Walk, is helping to build more positive perceptions of Chester-le-Street as a whole, and encourage lapsed shoppers to give the town another look.

Updated 16 April 2018

Can we help your town?

If you’re interested in our work in Chester-le-Street, and would like us to make a similar difference wherever you are, drop us a line and we can have a chat.

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