It’s that time of the year again; Black Friday sales have passed by, ‘Cyber Monday’ deals have been and gone after seeming to last for weeks, and now, finally, the country is starting to breath the crisp December air and allow itself to revel in some Christmas spirit. Families are traversing stores both on and offline, hoping to find the best bargains for their significant others, children and relatives.
But down here in the Garden of England, we shouldn’t be so quick to turn to online stores and shopping centres. Before heading down to Bluewater or searching the furthest reaches of Amazon, Kent should be looking inwards, to the high streets that make this county our home.
In Chapel Place, near the Pantiles of Tunbridge Wells, Karen Pengally tells me that the festive mood is starting to grow, despite the increasingly bleak weather. As the Town Centre Manager of the new local partnership ‘Royal Tunbridge Wells Together’, she is extremely passionate about the need to shop locally all year round, not just at Christmas.
“People perceive that it is easier to jump in the car and drive for four hours to save £2 on parking, and actually half the time, everything they need is on their doorstep,” she says.
And it’s not just the ease of access, nor the wide range of choices that should encourage you to stick to the high street. Buying local means more of your money is invested in the town’s economy, benefiting everything from employment levels, to local wellbeing.
Karen says: “I think the figures- and they’re approximate and slightly vague, but 65p out of every pound, if you buy from a local independent business, stays local.
“If you buy in a multiple chain store, that reduces but it’s still 30, 35 pence out of every pound that stays local. If you buy online, the figure is so small it’s somewhere in the region of 1%!”
Karen is overseeing the placement of a Christmas tree in Chapel Place, Tunbridge Wells. Standing at 16ft tall, the fir is an impressive sight standing outside the church of King Charles the Martyr, and Rev Laurence Powell is hopeful that it will convince more people to shop in the local area.
“The tree is a community project, and the idea is that the traders of chapel place have come together to focus the attention of people to come and shop local, and to draw them into what is the heart of the historic part of Tunbridge Wells.
“It’s a real community come together in Chapel Place to bring a bit of Christmas and a bit of light to this particular part of the historic town.
“Over the years I think the footfall has dropped, particularly in this area, as more people are drawn up towards the town or online shopping, and the hope is that… people will come and shop local, and support their local businesses.”
Wendy Rule, one of the minds behind ‘Chapel Place Traders’, spoke passionately of the dangers facing Kent’s towns if we allow our high-streets to fall apart:
“Without the characters behind these independent retailers, the towns will become ghost towns. Outside of the Oxford Streets, Regent Streets of Britain, so many high streets communities are on their knees; 80,000 jobs have been lost in the last year from retail, and that’s not finished yet.”
Those figures are certainly startling, however it was her description of the shop owners that was most striking to me.
She said: “These retailers are expert, passionate individuals who choose to put their life, soul and heart into creating a shopping environment, and that also means socialising, no matter what it is.
“I call it ‘real-tale’ rather than ‘e-tale’- it’s real people, in real towns and real buildings, it’s about being a community.”
It’s the word ‘community’ that is most important. So many towns, in Kent and around the country, are built around high streets, and that network of shops forms a vibrant and social community which can last a lifetime. Online shopping, more than anything, is sucking the soul out of retail, and depriving us of that community, of that experience of shopping.
This is a notion that Ian Chatfield shares. He’s been running a butcher’s shop in Tonbridge high street for the last six years, but fears that an impending Retail Park development in Cannon Lane will be bad for business as people are drawn away from the town centre.
He says: “The high street is a hub of a town, it’s a part of people’s social welfare to interact with people, and they can do that on a busy high street, in local shops such as ourselves. For some older people, it’s their only social interaction.”
Online shopping is something that we’ve all grown accustomed to; in fact, everyone born in my own generation and after will grow up with it as the norm. And that’s fine; there’s no reason that online and offline, local shopping cannot coexist. But in not shopping locally, we’re missing out. It therefore seems very pertinent that this Christmas, a holiday that has long been associated with community and togetherness, Kent as a whole should make a conscious effort to shop local.