Following a year of unprecedented challenges, a raft of new initiatives is being unveiled to help the recovery of local businesses in Babergh and Mid Suffolk.
Funding from the Suffolk Inclusive Growth Investment Fund (SIGIF) means that plans to expand the successful Virtual High Street, to roll out a digital skills programme as well as the creation of a series of innovation spaces for start-up businesses can now go ahead.
These initiatives, which are designed to support businesses post-covid, will focus on the five key towns of Sudbury, Hadleigh, Stowmarket, Needham Market and Eye and reflect the ambitions of the councils’ Vision and invest programmes.
Investment for the expansion of the Virtual High Street was announced at the end of 2020 following the success of a pilot scheme created by Sudbury Town Council during the first national lockdown in March.
Working in partnership with Sudbury Town Council, the expanded Virtual High Street was launched in October 2020 with the aim of bringing together high street shops and local service providers on a single digital platform, making it easy for customers to find local stores and shop online and enabling business owners to showcase their goods, arrange click and collect and, in some cases, deliveries.
The Virtual High Street software was funded by Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils and created in collaboration with QueuePay Technology based at the Innovation Labs in Stowmarket. With independents making up 70% of its town centre shops, Sudbury was the perfect place to test the new platform and within weeks, 100 businesses had signed up.
The platform has seen an average of over 400 unique visitors per week, evidence of a growing impetus to shop local and support the high street, with online and in-person shopping spiking in the run-up to Christmas.
Sisters Georgina and Jessie Humphries from Baked by Humphries, who were the 100th business to sign up, see the platform as a critical component of a long-term campaign to stimulate the town centre and help them connect with their customers: “This year, it’s more important than ever to shop local where you can. The ripple effect of doing so will be seen for months, maybe even years to come. Shopping local is personal, it has heart and soul and that’s one thing we don’t want the high street around us to lose.”
As with the pilot in Sudbury, businesses in Stowmarket, Hadleigh, Needham Market and Eye will be provided with advice and support on how to use the site, create their profiles and build their online offer, from scratch if necessary, while those with an existing online presence can use the platform as another tool to reach new customers and promote their business. Every business that signs will have a dedicated page where they can display information about themselves, photos of their products, or details about their services as well as key information such as opening times.
As part of their recovery strategy, Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils will also launch a digital skills programme designed to help businesses improve their knowledge on a range of subjects including of online marketing, security and e-commerce. This will help ensure that all businesses, irrespective of whether they had their own website/social media, will be able to make the most of this opportunity.
Businesses who would like to register their interest in getting involved can do so via the website: www.virtualhighstreet.uk.
While having an online presence is important and helps drive sales, it is still crucial that residents and visitors continue to use our high streets when the lockdown measures have eased. When residents shop in their local town or village, the knock-on effect and boost to the local economy can be huge. In fact, if all adults over the age of 18 in Babergh and Mid Suffolk spent an extra £5 per week shopping local for just six months, the local economy could benefit from almost £19m of additional income!
As part of the Shop local campaign, local communities will be invited to celebrate their High Street Heroes, those businesses and shop owners who have gone the extra mile over lockdown to be there for the customers. By celebrating the community spirit found in towns and villages in the districts, we hope to encourage residents to keep shopping local and supporting their local area.
Shaun Palfrey, owner of artisan butcher Palfrey & Hall in Debenham said: “The continued support of our customers means everything to us. People shopping and supporting local businesses has made such a difference, and we have so many customers who keep coming back. We’ve been able to expand our range of goods too, which supports other small businesses.”
The importance of local businesses to the local community has never been felt more keenly than over the last 12 months. Debenham resident Julia expressed her gratitude to Kate, owner of the Deben Coffee House: “I have been shielding and so haven’t been able to leave the house until now, but one call to the Deben Coffee House and they did free local home deliveries of fresh bread, pastries and more, straight to my door. That’s service you don’t get everywhere and I am so grateful for it. They have been an absolute lifeline for us and I wouldn’t dream of shopping anywhere else, we have everything we need right here on our doorstep!”
Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils are also looking at ways of helping start-ups and micro-businesses by opening a series of innovation spaces. The new innovate local scheme, which has been awarded funding from the Suffolk Inclusive Growth Investment Fund, will focus on providing a mix of methods to provide business support and pilot space to new start-ups, as well as grow-on space. This will include pop-up market stalls for retail or food-focused start-ups for 12 months, and the provision of hot desk and innovation space by taking over a vacant unit in the town centre, as well as ongoing support and mentorship for businesses working with Innovation Labs in Stowmarket.
The ultimate aim is to boost support for local business, raise awareness of the range of independent retailers and services in high streets around the districts and to create buzz around new businesses and attract visitors to shop local.
As part of their wider strategy to support businesses and innovation in the region, Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils have also launched an Innovation Network. The Innovation Network is free to join and members will be able to enjoy benefits such as workshops, virtual networking sessions with key speakers, regular newsletters and a platform for local businesses to meet and exchange ideas.