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, which manages 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.
For Cestrian Estates, the main focus of activity was initially 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.
Unfortunately, it became clear during 2018 that the costs involved in future-proofing the Market Hall building – which would involve a new roof costing tens of thousands of pounds – were prohibitive, and would not be viable without increasing the rents to a level that tenants would be unable to afford.
By autumn 2018, our focus had therefore shifted to helping the landlord with the relocation of Market Hall tenants to their own dedicated shops in the town centre. Using a new “Shop Chester-le-Street” campaign brand, our activity has included making sure that the moves were widely publicised, and pushing a positive message about the number of long-vacant shop units being filled by relocating traders.
That's better! Before and after shots of 142 Front Street in #ChesterleStreet. It's great to see @Hashtagnewscls1 now trading successfully in the ex-Blockbuster premises after five years lying empty.#retail #highstreet #newsagent #sweetshop pic.twitter.com/xjqgESKZEZ
— Shop Chester-le-Street (@ShopChesterLeSt) November 13, 2018
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.
Also, like Market Hall Shops, the scheme had had a longstanding issue with vacant units, and had no online visibility at all prior to our involvement.
With Cestrian Estates, our initial work 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, we set up @MarketHallCleS accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – later rebranded as “@ShopChesterleSt” ahead of the Market Hall’s planned demolition. These social media accounts are being used to share positive stories about the town’s businesses, and to amplify retailers’ own updates.
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.
We love our big-name stores, but we're especially proud of all the small, independent businesses that help make a visit to our centre and #ChesterleStreet *different*.
— St Cuthbert's Walk Shopping Centre (@stcuthbertswalk) October 8, 2018
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, Shop Chester-le-Street 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.
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.
— Market Hall Shops, Chester-le-Street (@MarketHallCleS) October 29, 2017
Retailers and customers reacted positively to the changes, with footfall improving, and the number of vacant units reduced. In fact, after a year of working at Market Hall Shops, the number of occupied units had grown from 11 in April 2017 to 20 in April 2018. This figure included seven brand-new occupants (several of which expanded to occupy two or three units).
Though the decision was ultimately taken to close the Market Hall and relocate its tenants, none of this previous activity was wasted – it helped build up the businesses to the point where they were more positive and confident about taking on their own shop premises than would otherwise have been the case.
Have you been into our new shop at 146 Front Street in #ChesterleStreet yet? We stock #dancewear, fancy dress and accessories, and look forward to seeing you soon! @ShopChesterLeSt pic.twitter.com/maQHiVRlWv
— Real Fancy Dancewear (@RealFancyDance) November 13, 2018
Many retailers in premises managed by Cestrian Estates or St Cuthbert’s Walk have also benefited from our one-to-one marketing support, and the opportunity to showcase their businesses via the projects’ social media channels.
As of November 2018, we have:
- Set up six businesses on Google My Business, to ensure that their shops appear on Google Maps, and that the business owners can access and update the information that Google displays to its users, such as photographs, contact details and opening hours.
- Given 14 businesses one-to-one training and support in either setting up and using social media for the first time, adding their businesses to additional social networks, or learning how to use social media more effectively (such as through the creation of great photographs, videos and written content).
- Promoted more than 40 different Chester-le-Street town centre businesses via one or both of the @MarketHallCleS/@ShopChesterleSt and @StCuthbertsWalk social media channels over the course of the last 18 months.
- Tackled negative messages about the town by responding openly and honestly to criticisms, concerns and misconceptions voiced in forums such as the “Save Chester-le-Street” Facebook Group.
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 interviews on local radio, while stories about the town – often based on press releases that we have written – have featured in The Journal, Chester-le-Street Advertiser and Northern Echo newspapers, as well as on ITV News.
It was lovely to see St Cuthbert's Walk and some of our retailers featured on ITV Tyne Tees News last night, in a *positive* story about shopping in #ChesterleStreet. Come and pay us a visit and see what you're missing! pic.twitter.com/kGT31eEwbx
— St Cuthbert's Walk Shopping Centre (@stcuthbertswalk) April 21, 2018
In turn, all the activity and buzz around the retailers we work with is building more positive perceptions of Chester-le-Street as a whole, encouraging lapsed and new shoppers to give the town another look, and generating an increase in enquiries from potential new occupants.
Updated 19 November 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.