The future of Accrington town centre lies in the hands of market traders and independent shops, a retail expert has warned.
The town has been dogged by high street closures in recent months, with household name after household name shutting up shop.
Retail consultant Corin Birchall, who has been advising local authorities on how to improve town centres for more than 20 years, has said that the plight of Accrington cannot be solved with ‘a bit of lipstick’ and has urged bold action.
He has called on the town to ‘aggressively’ promote and support the things it does well, in order to succeed, highlighting the markets and thriving independents shops.
He said: "Accrington needs to aggressively promote what it does well, and differentiate itself from the others.
"Centres like the Trafford Centre are well managed, with opening hours, having a retail mix and have no vacant units. You have to apply the same thinking to a town centre.
"In reality most town centres the size of Accrington are no longer fit for purpose, the way people spend their time and money has completely changed and this needs to be reflected."
He added: "The challenges experienced are not unique to Accrington, there are hundreds of towns in a similar position,
“Accrington needs to look at itself like a product, a brand, or a shopping centre, competing against Burnley, Blackburn, Preston and the Trafford Centre. That is the choice consumers have.
“Don’t settle for value and convenience stores. You have to create a unique retail offer.”
MP Graham Jones has pointed to Warner Street as a shining example of the ‘unique offer’ that can be achieved.
The street is home to independent shops and regularly has visitors from all over Lancashire.
Yvonne Harwood, who runs the Pink Magpie Vintage Emporium on Warner Street, said: “We get people from all over. Warner Street remains a living high street, it is a success.
“We are a market town and we should be proud of that, we have a lot to offer.”
Mr Birchall said the biggest factors to impact on the high street in recent years has been a change in shopping habits and less disposable income for shoppers.
The growth in internet shopping and the proliferation of out of town shopping centres and now retraction has had a scarring effect on centres like Accrington, he added.
While superstores on the outskirts are viewed as a convenience by shoppers, many traders have complained that they drag footfall away from historic centres and cause towns to fall into a downward spiral.
Greg Jopson, who is a fifth generation market trader in Accrington, said: “With the geography of Accrington and any town centre you have a central business district in the middle.
“That has changed now, because towns and cities have developed on the outer part of the ring road due to cheaper rent. That central business district which can be explained as the sphere of influence for how the population spend their money has expanded outwards and mushroomed.
“This has resulted in people travelling further away from the town centre and now, with retailers closing, this is forcing people’s hand and making them travel even further, maybe to another town, which is having a hard impact.”
According to the latest retail figures, roughly thirty per cent of a shopper’s spend goes into town centres, down from around fifty per cent just over a decade ago.
A fight back against the fall in footfall was launched in September in the Market Hall with the click and collect scheme.
The scheme has so far resulted in 27 market traders getting online and selling more than 350 products.
The Great Harwood businessman behind the scheme has said that it is a great way for Accrington’s independents to showcase what they can do to the wider region and also enables them to compete with the bigger retailers.
Murray Dawson, Managing Director of Scott Dawson Advertising which is behind the scheme, said: “The aim of click and collect is to allow local traders to be able to compete.
“We are not charging the traders and there is free home delivery, it is just a service to get more footfall and since it was introduced there has been more shoppers.
"We need to sit up and embrace the future of retail."
The success of click and collect has led Hyndburn council to consider the idea of expanding free wi-fi across the town.
This is something which many similar sized towns to Accrington have done with the aim of making the high street more modern and competitive, encouraging residents to shop locally by giving them fingertip-access to more information about what is available in their community.
A Hyndburn council spokesman said: “With regards to expanding wi-fi across the town this is something that we have started to look into, but it is matter that will need support and input from all stakeholders including the Chamber of Trade.”
Shoppers are also being encouraged to support the town centre.
The population in Accrington is around 25,000 and there are 87,000 in the wider borough of Hyndburn. Council bosses have said consistently that if just 10 per cent decided to shop local it would have a ‘major’ impact.
Mr Birchall described the millions of pounds in transport investment that have started to come to fruition, in addition to the £3 million secured by Hyndburn council to carry out restoration work to historic buildings and create a town square outside the Market Hall, as exciting.
He believes it will allow Accrington to promote itself as a market town more easily.
Ray Goldstone, president of Hyndburn Chamber of Trade, agreed that a focus on the town’s unique attractions, such as Warner Street and the Victorian arcade, would have a positive impact on footfall.
He said: “To an extent you do need the big brands, but if you get the town interesting enough we will draw the population in.”