FEATURE: John Woodhouse explores Totally Locally Leek
THE British high street is dead, at least according to the doom-mongers. Step forward one North Staffordshire town doing rather well, thank you very much. John Woodhouse investigates the pulling power of Totally Locally
LIVE Totally, Shop Locally, Say Something Good, Invest In Your Town, Walk In That Door You Always Pass, Slow Down. Rap’s never quite taken off in Leek. The Queen of the Moorlands is just not that kind of woman. But there are some persuading the grand old lady to move to a different tune. Totally Locally, ‘the big idea put together by a small bunch of people’, has got the town rocking to a new rhythm – one tapped out by an ever strengthening heartbeat.
While the naysayers would claim the internet, retail parks, and supermarkets have strangled community shopping, Leek hasn’t been so healthy in years. Indeed, towns across the land are now falling over themselves to mimic its success.
The concept is remarkably simple. Totally Locally has encouraged Leekensians to build a giant snowball – and send it careering down a hill.
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It’s about encouraging people to shop locally, showing that small changes in the way they live can make a huge impact. It tells them, for example, that by spending just £5 a week with independent shops, they will generate more than £4m for the area’s economy each year. Then there’s the ‘magic tenner’ – a bit of maths that says if you spend £10 in a local shop that sells stuff from local producers the amount of money generated from that one crisp note can be more than £50.
Jobs, increased affluence, and more investment in the town result. But more than anything Totally Locally delivers something that money can’t buy – a buzz.
Those who come to Leek now find it a much different place to 10 years ago.
It has more independent shops than you can shake a stick at. In fact, a stick-shaking shop is one of the few that hasn’t sprung up.
A unit becomes available and it’s immediately filled. If Mary Portas took a stroll here there’s a good chance she’d think she’d died and gone to heaven. And if she did there’d be a Totally Locally florist to prepare the wreath.
The scheme’s founder, Chris Sands, who started the snowball rolling in West Yorkshire professes Leek to be “the best example” of how the scheme, unveiled in 17 towns across the country, can work. “When I look at Leek,” he says, “I see the Totally Locally that’s worked the best. It shows what people who care about their town can do and the difference they can make.”
T otally Locally’s appointed ‘town captain’, a title which he readily admits makes him cringe, is Marc Briand. “We knew Leek had potential,” says Marc, who, with wife Julie, opened giftware store Colloco in the town’s Sheepmarket five years ago, “but it had never really reached it. Thing is, I knew people had a passion for the town, and I knew we could do something, but the question was ‘how to do it?’.
“I’d seen what Totally Locally had done elsewhere and it looked like it could provide the answer. It brings people together in a common purpose. It’s about the town and not the individual.”
This is where Leek differs. It’s the one place where the phrase ‘we’re all in this together’ isn’t cloying.
Forty businesses have just chucked in £20 each for a Christmas town map. Go in a shop and find they’ve not got what you’re looking for, and the owner will more than happily point you in the direction of someone who has. It’s the ultimate feelgood retail experience. It’s A Wonderful Life: The Shopkeepers’ Cut.
Really there’s no escape from it. Go for a pint in The Roebuck, for example, and a sign tells you that by doing so you’re supporting seven other local businesses. Guilt-free befuddlement – it can’t be bad.
“When you compare it to Macclesfield and Buxton,” says Marc, “Leek’s a totally different shopping experience. More people are moving to Leek now based on the vibe. They’re wanting to support the town, be a part of it.”
But these aren’t just messages plucked from thin air. Totally Locally relies on a marketing campaign as structured as that of the Sainsbury’s looming on the horizon up the road, but one delivered in an apparently free and easy manner.
Its 10 House Rules, distributed to all those taking part, are a case in point. Number one, for instance, is as simple as this – Be Nice. Others range from a reminder that Totally Locally is not about “the old ways ‘Me, Me, Me’, but ‘Us, Us, Us’”. “Don’t shout about yourself,” Totally Locally urges traders, “shout about the shop down the road. It’ll make them want to shout about someone too – possibly you.”
They’re also implored to (rule 7) Spread The Love, but most of all the Totally Locally ethos urges (rule 6) Ask Not What Your Town Can Do For You. Rule 10, by the way, is No More Rules.
“The trick,” says Chris Sands, “is to control it in an uncontrolled way. That’s hard to do, and it’s what Leek has done very successfully.
“How we do it is a mixture of marketing, branding, business sense, passion, fun, great imagery and a nice line in humour!
“We give people permission to get excited about where they live. Most people don’t ever see what is on their doorstep. They forget to look up, forget to take a moment and savour where they live. We want to help people to see their towns through the eyes of an enthusiastic tourist! When they do that they reassess and start to re-interact with their towns, their shops, their communities.
“One lady told us ‘You’ve helped me to learn to shop again. I don’t just wander round a supermarket throwing things in a trolley. I talk to people again. I discuss where things come from. It was hard to start with, but I’m so thankful I did it’.”
I t’s an experience repeated all over Leek. “It’s really exciting,” says Leonie Wood, who runs The Wine Shop, in Russell Street, with husband David. “It’s almost like people are remembering how to shop again. If you buy a bottle of wine in a supermarket, you pick it of the shelf take it to the till and that’s it. Go to an independent shop and you get that personal service. People enjoy that.
“They’re starting to question whether that supermarket experience is really what they want. People come in here and they say ‘oh, what a lovely shop – what a lovely musty smell’.
“They enjoy the whole experience of it. Even though people live busy lives, they don’t necessarily have to do things a certain way. I think, for me, Totally Locally is about a lifestyle. There are more and more people, when it comes to retail parks and supermarkets, saying ‘it’s not for me’.”
Leek’s trick has been to make itself a destination shopping town while not forsaking what the locals need as well.
“We’ve seen it happen in some places,” says Marc, “where a town has so many independents that the locals don’t use it anymore. That’s counter-productive and not what we want. No-one’s saying there shouldn’t be chain stores in Leek. There are chain stores, and they have their place. What you need is to have the right mix.”
The town that constantly crops up in conversation is Ludlow, the, albeit slightly larger, Shropshire market town which has achieved this split to perfection – a destination shopping town which appeals to the residents as well.
“The reputation of Leek is growing,” says Leonie, who’s run The Wine Shop (it’s also a niche whisky emporium) for nine years. “It’s not just local people trying us, they’re coming from a 10 or 20 mile radius. They’ll say ‘we’ve not been to Leek for 10 years – we can’t believe how much it’s changed’.
“They’ve seen that they can come here – go to a great deli, come to us for wine – and have a great experience.
“People often think that independent shops are going to be expensive, but they’re increasingly seeing that isn’t the case.”
D own the other end of town, over at Possibilities florists by the Smithfield Centre, Meg Browne has seen Totally Locally come up roses for her and business partner Simon Davies.
“We really wanted to get involved,” she says. “Leek’s quite a small place,” she points out, “and everyone knows one another. The idea of getting people to love where they live, and spend money, and support one another, is such a nice one. It’s such a positive message – with Totally Locally everything’s always positive and upbeat and that really spreads around. For the traders, we’ve seen that there’s strength in numbers. It’s great to see so many people enjoying the town.
“For us,” she adds, “we’ve seen how much people like that personal service. We have a lot of loyal customers. We get to know what they like, what they want – something you’re not going to get in a big retail shop.”
It’s a message repeated over the road in Classic Collectibles, a toy store doubling as a Tardis trip back to your youth, which owner Richard Heath brought to the town four years ago. Hornby railways, Corgi, Dinky, Matchbox cars, and original Star Wars toys adorn every inch of wall.
“Totally Locally has created a different atmosphere in the town,” he says. “People have really bought into the idea of keeping the money they spend local and the consequences of putting it back into the local economy.”
At the newly opened Dougal’s Den, meanwhile, Lynn Haigh has finally got herself a unit after a wait of a year to set up her pet shop offering ‘amazing finds for the furry kind’. “I try to use as many local companies as I can,” she says. “And Leek to me is now a great place to shop. So much better than running round a city centre battling your way through the crowds.”
These traders are hoping the Totally Locally effect will add to Leek’s Christmas shopping appeal. Certainly, with its eclectic streets and Getliffe’s Yard indoor arcade, it can claim to offer a unique festive experience. “It’s somewhere people can come,” says Marc, “and really find gifts with a difference. I’ve heard quite a few people say they’re going to do all their Christmas shopping in Leek this year.”
Shops in Leek will be opening on Sunday throughout December. Sunday Supplement, meanwhile, is the town’s ‘chilled out’ first Sunday of each month – a chance to experience a mix of independent shops and cafes with a street market of craft and food ‘and not even feel guilty about it’.
Some might wonder why it takes a group of shopkeepers to transform a town’s fortunes when there’s a local authority dedicated to such matters sat in a civic centre up the road. But, inkeeping with the Totally Locally ethos, Marc’s not interested in point scoring. “On your own there’s only so much you can do,” he says, “but together you can do such more.”
For him, Totally Locally has been a revelation. He admits he found the concept – a deliberately vague lonely hearts plea for people to embrace their town – hard to get his head round at first. But, with a team of fellow hard-working traders, they’ve seen that, in 21st Britain, you don’t always need to be cynical about love.
As a year which gave us the Olympics and Jubilee draws to a close, we’ve learnt nothing if not that people yearn to be part of something. And it can just as well be in Leek as London.
Or, for that matter, Stone – the latest North Staffordshire town to ally itself to the Totally Locally cause. “If every adult in the Stone area spent just £5 a week at their local shops, rather than online or at supermarkets,” they tell residents, “it would be worth an extra £3.1m a year going into the local economy.”
When it comes to winning the high street lottery, Totally Locally allows you to pick your own numbers.
Totally Locally Leek, Sunday Supplement, Dec 2, 11am–3pm. www.totallylocallyleek.co.uk