Saturday, November 21, 2009

So, what kind of High Street presence?

Well, my post on booksellers has gone Stateside (you can see where here) - which is a first for me! More than that, it's provoked the 'explain what you have in mind' question. So, here's a very unrefined first stab to get the conversation going...

It seems to me that if there are lots of people on our high streets - and judging by my shopping trip today, there are, despite the recession - then we need to create spaces where we can engage with them without taking them off those high streets and into an alien space, seemingly miles away.

So we need a retail space that is open, inviting, familiar and welcoming. I think the space needs to do coffee and snacks. The food needs to be fair trade, creatively done and competitively priced. We're not talking local church cake stall here.

We need a good range of Christian and other literature, including magazines - and space for people to browse, sit and read. Think Borders.

I'd like to see a gallery space downstairs with art being exhibited by local artists. I spoke to a guy last night while I was Street Pastoring who said there was a chronic shortage of space for artists to exhibit in across South London.

There needs to be free wi-fi and a number of spare laptops for those without machines to use. Wi-fi access could be granted to anyone who buys a beverage or food.

I'd also like to see a group of people on hand to assist those who come in to ensure they get what they need. The Apple Shops are good at this. People in different coloured tee shirts making sure that visitors have product explained to them, etc. One of the things that could be offered is a book ordering and advice service with a guarantee that we'll get anything in print within a week - unless it has to come from overseas - and we'll not restrict ourselves to Christian stock.

And then we need groups to be using the space, people exploring the Christian faith in various ways that are open and accessible to anyone who comes in. Perhaps an artist explaining her work, groups talking through local issues or world news, an alpha or Essence course, Christianity Explored - whatever local churches wanted to organise. The idea is that such groups would happen in space that lots of people who don't go to church would feel more comfortable in.

And we'd need regular cafe church-style happenings, lasting thirty minutes or so which anyone in the store at the time was invited to join in with.

Someone made a comment about Wesley Owen stores not being the most riveting places on the High Street. point taken. This space needs to be quirky, interesting, creative, well-designed and genuinely welcoming to all-comers. This might mean very carefully vetting which local church members you allow in!!

Anyway, this is off-the-top of my head, based on a wish and some experience of places like the Departure Cafe in Limehouse and a cafe I went to once went to in Deptford that had good food and an art space for a while.

It would require a deal of investment from people willing to see it as mission rather than a pure profit generator. And it would need a pool of committed, competent and trained volunteers from local churches, as well as people with experience in retailing and hospitality to come on board.

It's a tall order to do it well. But God's mission is worth stretching for, isn't it?


Anonymous said...

It's an interesting idea, and on the surface quite compelling. But sadly, I think it would be doomed to fail. Why?

Well I suppose I take a rather bleaker, wider view of Christianity. To use the high street analogy, Christianity at the moment is like Woolworths. Comfortable and cosy, it's always been there and offers something for everyone. Yet, no-one's shopping there because people don't see it as relevant any more. There are brighter, smarter, more intriguing and aspirational alternatives.

If you take a step back and look at how brands and marketing works, the most successful stores offer what people want, in a way that will make them special in some way. Apple - cool products that work well. Primark - cheap clothing that's bang on trend. John Lewis - quality and service. They all do what they do supremely well.

From what I remember there's nothing aspirational about a Christian bookshop. The one that closed in our high street was staffed by weirdos or middle aged women, had the design flair of a charity shop, window dressing skills from the 1930s and contents which wouldn't interest the most esoteric shopper. I didn't mourn its passing.

The gallery/cafe concept is an interesting one, but you're only going to attract people who like art or have time to come in and browse. And why come to you for books when there's Waterstone and WHSmiths who can sell more books and cheaper and I wouldn't have to wait a week for them? Plus, I wouldn't have to negotiate my way past happy, T-shirt wearing Christians who would be desperate to witness to me, when all I wanted was a book/10 mins on the computer or a latte?

Say I come to your gallery/wifi/cafe. What will I find attractive there? And what will the post-purchase follow up be for me? If I get converted do I still end up at the same old church doing the same old things?

I really admire you for trying to do things differently. But you're trying to use contemporary marketing techniques on a dying brand. People are content to believe in God, or accept that others do. But they don't understand the relevance of Christianity. And if they do, they may dismiss it in the face of scientific evidence, or a belief that religion destroys and creates division.

I'm not saying your concept for church on the high street is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but in the arena of ordinary people's shopping habits, you're on a hiding to nothing.

Remember the fondness that people had for Woolies? Remember how it garnered TV coverage of people mourning its passing? Can you see that for the church? Will anyone take notice at all? There are churches closing all over the UK, because they aren't used anymore. They're being turned into art centres, bars and clubs and graceful apartments. Why? Because no-one attended them. Christian bookshops will go the same way, for the same reason. You're marketing limited products to an ever decreasing marketplace.

I can't give you any ideas about how you stop Christianity becoming a heritage product. But I can suggest that you take a step back and ask how you make the punter on the high street take notice of what you've got to say - because at the moment, Christianity is about as relevant to them as Westminster politics.

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful post and thoughtful reply Thank you both!
My experience for what it is worth is that people are still very spiritual and still looking for a meaning and purpose in life but perceive Christianity to be dull and boring I do think much of this is to do with the packaging which is very unattractive and for many repulsive (strong but literally true in my view!)but where there is an opportunity for real relationship then the Christian message has a chance to break through the packaging
we need to stop being so precious about the status quo because change is a requirement of growth

A great book that touches on this theme is The Forgotten Ways handbook by Alan Hirsch

David said...

I am really excited about comming across this blog post, I had pretty much the same idea 'pop' into my head a few weeks back about the town centre where I live (Bedford) the concept I had was very much identical to yours I have pout the idea out to the Elders of our church to see where it goes but it seems that God is up to something and I for one m excited.

Matt Wardman said...

>So we need a retail space that is open, inviting, familiar and welcoming. I think the space needs to do coffee and snacks. The food needs to be fair trade, creatively done and competitively priced. We're not talking local church cake stall here.

Can I ask a question - why not "local church cake stall", or at least "all food suppliers based within 10 miles"?

One of the biggest blindspots in the FairTrade movement is that they have not applied their principles to local and small suppliers here, and they *really* struggle.