Shopping is simply not enough any more for our city centres

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Looking down Canterbury High Street towards the Westgate Towers

The High Street is changing. You’ll hear it said time and time again, but what does it actually mean?

Clearly the High Street isn’t going anywhere. The occupiers may change, but the buildings will continue to stand. The question, therefore, is: what is going to fill them?

At Dodgems and Floss, itself an invader of the traditional High Street setup, we did a little experiment to try and answer that question.

I say little, the operation ended up grossing £80,000 during its short life, which provides a very neat answer to our question.

Our experiment was called Canterbury Escape Room. You might have heard of it, and there’s a good chance you’ve even played it, but the concept was to create an experience on the High Street designed to appeal to all of us who have ever Googled in desperation “things to do in Canterbury”.

The idea wasn’t high budget, just a bit of creativity to provide a challenge to Canterbury’s residents and visitors that incarcerated them in a 15th century jail cell and tasked them to escape within an hour or have a rather unpleasant meeting with the executioner.

The response? Overwhelming. Bookings from near and far, young and old, three generations playing together in one game and even a marriage proposal. It didn’t take us long to surmise that, yes, people do want to shop, but that’s simply not enough any more.

Attracting customers is all about creating an experience, and that’s something that our big department stores seem to have forgotten.

The Berkeley in London has a fantastic experience called Out Of The Blue. It is an immersive cocktail experience for you and three friends that surrounds you with visuals, sounds and smells that turn a simple drink into an adventure.

You don’t have to stay there to book, but it gets new customers through the door, communicates the Berkeley brand and provides an attractive alternative to just going out for a drink.

So how can our beloved department stores, and the wider High Street, learn from this?

Take a step back for a moment from the shop window, from the arrangement of the products and the setting on the thermostat. Reimagine.

What can you do with the space and the resources that you have available that will bring in people who wouldn’t normally think to step inside, or would only visit if they needed something specific?

It could be as simple as a bookable personal shopping experience. Or perhaps it’s a by-appointment experience pairing food and drink with new looks or jewellery.

It could even be an entirely self-contained attraction, like an escape/puzzle room experience or virtual reality immersion.

It all comes back to creating that experience and imaginative thinking. As simple as offering your visitors a drink while they browse or as complex as something standalone that complements your brand, the transition to future High Street isn’t a difficult one, but it is one that requires a bit of thought and a bit of effort.

The High Street is changing. From day to day essentials to special treats, dining and drinking, and now to experiences that can be shared with friends and family – it’s happening, and it’s happening now.

Those that can’t keep up will fade away, like House of Fraser and some of the chain restaurant brands, but those who are prepared to innovate will secure their place in a new, vibrant economy built around giving you and I an experience that we’ll love so much we’ll share it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.

The best thing is it’s not too late: dare to innovate and you’ll be rewarded in spades.

Ben Fitter-Harding is a Conservative councillor for Blean Forest and is the chairman of the council’s property and regeneration committee. He runs the collaborative design studio Dodgems and Floss in St Peter’s Street.

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