Funding from the Suffolk Inclusive Growth Investment Fund (SIGIF), means that plans to expand the successful Virtual High Street, roll out a digital skills programme as well as the creation of a series innovations 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 in Sudbury.
Launched last year in partnership with Sudbury Town Council, in response to the Covid-19 lockdowns, the aim of the Virtual High Street was to bring 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. The Virtual High Street is designed to create a digital window onto the high street allowing business owners to showcase their goods, arrange click and collect and in some cases arrange deliveries.
Following the success of the Virtual High Street in Sudbury, which now has over 120 businesses signed up, the platform will be opened to businesses in Stowmarket and Hadleigh in the coming months, with Needham Market and Eye following shortly after. As with the pilot in Sudbury, businesses will be provided with advice and support on how to use the site, create their profiles and build their online offer.
Before the joining the Virtual High Street, almost 70% of businesses did not have any online presence. As part of their recovery strategy, Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils will be launching a digital skills programme designed to help businesses improve their knowledge on a range of subjects including of online marketing, security, and e-commerce.
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. These will be a combination of pop-up innovation hubs and market stalls where new business owners can trial their business concept with customers without the pressure of committing to high setup costs.
The Councils aim through the expanded Virtual High Street, digital skills programme and innovation spaces initiative 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.
Cllr Michael Holt, Babergh District Council cabinet member for economic growth commented:
“The Virtual High Street has been a huge success in Sudbury with over 5,000 unique visitors over the last 6 months. While the Virtual High Street has been invaluable during the lockdowns, as businesses prepare to reopen, our ambition is that the platform continues to grow and complement the unique offer of the town. This will not only encourage residents to come and shop locally but also to showcase everything Sudbury has to offer and attract visitors from further afield.”
Cllr Gerard Brewster, Mid Suffolk District Council cabinet member for economic growth said:
“The last 12 months have demonstrated that having a broad understanding of technology and e-commerce has never been more important and I am pleased that we will be able to offer business owners the chance to improve and expand their digital skills and, in turn, help grow and develop their business.”
As part of their wider strategy to support businesses and innovation in the region, Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils have 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.