In his latest independent review of the high street published last month, former Wickes, Iceland and Booker chief executive Bill Grimsey said that UK town and city centres must be “repopulated and refashioned” as community hubs to survive and thrive.
In light of increasing troubles in the retail sector, Grimsey said high streets can no longer be dominated by “bricks and mortar retailing”.
“[Our cities and towns] must create their own unique reason for communities to gather there,” he said, suggesting that libraries and public spaces should be placed at the heart of each community.
Among his recommendations, Grimsey also called for changes to business rates, calling them “an outdated and unfair tax that needs a major overhaul”.
While many printers, particularly wide-format specialists producing signage and POS material, have been hit recently by a drop in demand from retail clients, a reshaped high street could provide other opportunities for print.
Revised business rates could help to drive startups and creatives onto the high street and into the centre of these refashioned communities.
One such existing example is The Fountain Arcade in Stockton-on-Tees, a town that Grimsey pinpoints as “a regeneration success story”.
The local authority enable new business concepts to be piloted at low risk, and creative firms currently make up the bulk of the traders.
While printers themselves could potentially get directly involved in these initiatives, a higher concentration of creatives is likely to bring with it an increased appetite for print either way.
AlphaGraphics UK’s main production plant is in Stockton-on-Tees while it has sales and design offices in Middlesbrough, Nottingham and Newcastle.
Managing director Andrew Dalton says that while centralised locations can have limitations – his company moved its production off the high street in 2001 – they could still offer a different type of opportunity.
“If the high street was to create a demand now, if that’s where creative people and small businesses were going and wanting those sorts of services, then we might have a pop-up store or some form of creative or joint venture sharing office space with somebody, because production is much more efficiently run in proper industrial premises where you can get workflow and scale.”
While passing trade now makes up a very small percentage of high street printers’ work, being located centrally is still a draw.
“The fact that you’re on the high street is a constant reminder to the customer that you are there and you are local,” says Kall Kwik UK managing director Nigel Toplis.
“You have ready-made customers on your doorstep and there’s a benefit to them because they know you can do a multitude of services for them.”
He adds: “You want to be on a high street that has vibrancy, energy and a mix of businesses. Most of our business comes from hotels, finance houses, research and training firms. It’s not so much about getting business from our next-door neighbour, it’s about whether the high street itself actually generates business.”
Like many high street printers, Kall Kwik UK offers a raft of other services, including design, web design, email marketing, scanning and archiving, placing it in a prime position to take advantage of new opportunities that could arise from repurposed local surroundings.
But there are opportunities here too for printers not necessarily based on the high street. Companies that build close ties with the local community and councils could find themselves at the front of the queue when there is a need for printed graphics to decorate vibrant new community spaces or for printed hoardings to mask building sites.
“If there’s an empty unit in a mall, it’s now disguised to look as if it’s not empty, and if there’s a building being refurbished you might now get a 3D rendering of what the building is going to look like – there has definitely been an increase in brandification,” says Grafenia chief executive Peter Gunning.
In 2016 Grafenia opened its first Nettl Business Store in central Birmingham. This site combines the sale of e-commerce, websites, print and displays, together with a meeting space for local businesses.
While Grimsey’s vision of the high street is likely some way off becoming reality in many towns and cities, the landscape is already changing in others and print is in a good place to benefit.
“The things that are going to exist are those that you’ve got to consume in person. People are willing to pay for experiences, they’re just not willing to pay for something they can buy more easily online,” says Gunning.
“And the experiential businesses that are taking the place of retailers are maybe more focused on brand and using all parts of the mix – online bookings, window displays, point-of-sale and table talkers – to get the most out of the opportunity.”