Sometimes I find myself in rooms of real adults with proper jobs.
I actually do. Don’t raise that eyebrow.
On these occasions I usually find some version of the thought: ‘If only these good people knew what I was attempting to do for a living this morning‘ flit through my head as I pin the name badge to the lapel and rehearse my latest succinct answer to the multiply-impending question: ‘So what do you do?”.
Today I found myself at a meeting of property professionals in Bomo, thanks to an invite from old chum and obviously proper business person, Andy.
Now, obviously, if I have my Music Artist head on, I can feel a bit out of place at such a do, to put it mildly. If, however, I swivel into place my Brand Creative head, I can just about get away with being in the room. But the truth is that thanks to years of Typo’s work with property pros in lots of different capacities, I can actually feel oddly at home. So long as I don’t break into song.
Andy’s perspicacious invitation this morning, though, was because of the speaker – a chap running an urban design practice locally, talking about the night time economy issues of Bournemouth.
>SNAPS FINGERS LOUDLY IN FACE<
Wake up! ..This could be interesting.
In fact, I always find this sort of thing fascinating. You know that, and so does Andy; I think the lovely first lady of Momo has a ruddy brilliant job dealing with exactly these kinds of issues every day.
But, as the eloquently attention-keeping Richard Eastham from Feria Urbanism showed us more than a handful of clear graphics and photos of both good and bad town centre design practices across Europe which my brilliant wife has made me take lots of photos of over the years, the obvious subject of retail space got me thinking about value.
Value. What is it?
If you work in retail, that word will have a very specific sound in your ear. A Value range of products is likely to be one that you’re hoping to shift a lot of units of. It’s the cheap stuff – but the stuff you want to be perceived as still Not Rubbish, just brilliantly affordable.
No one wants to feel that they’re wasting money in a shop. And for a thousand ‘every-day’ – ie: boring – items we more or less have to buy, the idea that we can make our money go further is supposedly appealing. Unless you’re so bored by the whole process of being in a drug store that you just want to grab the nearest box of cosmetic goop you can make it swiftly to the till with in order to get out of there and on to a shop you can be more willingly fleeced in. A coffee shop serving organic local produce, for example.
In another context though, the word value sounds rather different.
I value you.
Pretty deep, huh? I mean, I do value you – I thank the almighty one beyond the clouds for every Like and idle response on a comment thread that is tossed my way. You have no idea. You with your real life and big audience. But the point is the value of that very word when you think to say it to someone like that.
Or how about:
I think I can add value to that.
..Obviously, the person saying this may severely need to leave the world of stock photography business and go start a farm in Devon or something. Dye their own wool. BUT, it’s actually a pragmatically honest phrase. It’s saying: I think I can make a measurable difference to what you’re doing; I think I know why you could do with having me and my skills help you.
So what IS it? Value.
It is of course, nothing definite.
It’s like, a totally made-up thing.
Like this unicycling octopus accordion player.
>UNICYCLING OCTOPUS ACCORDION PLAYER TIPS HAT CHEERILY WHILE STILL PLAYING AND KEEPING BALANCE<
Totally made up.
As with almost everything in life, context is everything. For value. For clothing choices.
An exotic fruit from a distant land will be worth more in the land that’s distant from where it, like, grows on trees.
..Unless the people growing it ship it all the way round the world back to where they grow it just to increase its value. Not sure that would work. ..Would it?
The point is that a thing is only worth what people think it’s worth. There’s no periodic table of absolute value anywhere. The people in the land that ships in its ‘exotic’ fruit think it’s worth the cost of the freight to get it to them because it’s from Far Away. Making it ‘exotic’. ..And therefore valuable. That’s why the freight company thinks it can turn a profit bothering to ship tons of the damned things all the way there.
“Crikey, those are rare. ..I want one.” You bet you do. What you prepared to pay, mate?
So, fruit aside, here’s a question: Why is gold the byword for something valuable? I mean, it’s just a soft yellow metal. What use is it? You can’t even make a smoothie out of it. And you certainly can’t make a smoothie maker out of it.
USE? It’s only use is in being sold. To people who understand that it’s comparatively rare and hard to get to and is a byword for wealth and will therefore feel very good to be parading around on their ample bosom cleavage in front of their friends. Though they should know that their friends need no encouragement to stare at their ample bosom cleavage. These people could save themselves a fortune in gold by simply buying a new bra.
In any marketplace of people, if the mood is that something’s in and it’s valuable, it just is – for whatever reason it gained that reputation. And they’ll snap it up.
Well, so the question really then is how do you increase something’s value? Your thing? How do you get someone to want your thing? To perceive it as valuable to them?
Depends on the thing. I mean, how good is your thing? ..And much more to the point, how cool is it?
Because you can bet your life that there’s another word looming in partnership with the word ‘value’ whose implications will significantly affect your thing’s value – it’s the word ‘brand’. We even depressingly put the two words together often in business: Brand Value.
Someone’s impression of your thing, or you for that matter, will affect how much they value it. Rubbish, naff, unreliable, dishonest – once they’re thinking this, they won’t want to be associated with the thing. And therefore will not be seriously contemplating extending the credit card limit again to buy it.
It IS depressing that we human types so easily put more value on something that just seems cool than something that patently is useful. But there we are. If you’re a salesman, don’t question the power of that pressing human appetite, vanity – which is what brand association is obviously all about. And many of these fancies are just fun. And we are, perhaps above all and for whatever passing appetite, governed by passing impressions of things.
Which is interesting. Because what do you do if the thing you just WISH people would value is a certain type of behaviour?
Now, you’re sensible. You pay your council tax. You’re just old enough to start to think that the kids in town of a Saturday night need to stop drinking so much and put on a bit more clothing. Stop getting in fights and all that. And wouldn’t it be nice to be able to get a bloody cup of coffee somewhere you can actually talk in in town after six o’clock at night.
Yeah. What happened to you, man?
You grew up a bit. Which means it’s only a matter of time until you find yourself actually concerned about the state of the town centre’s shops and how to attract a more sustainable economy back into it. You’ll be going to ruddy seminars on it next.
The thing is. Impressions.
..No, don’t do that one you do. Of Frank Spencer. Firstly it’s truly rotten and secondly, I mean, who does that any more?
Many town centre shops are empty, yes? So it is regularly bemoaned. But why is this so?
Out-of-town retail, mate. People like easy parking and shops that look like featureless cathedrals.
They apparently do. ..That’s probably not ALL they like, though.
So what else is your town centre not offering customers that it could be, but which wind-swept out-of-season-theme-park-type retail parks just couldn’t compete with? That’s a good question, isn’t it?
Does no-one have ideas on those empty shops in town? Have we all collectively de-camped to Castlepoint? Should we just burn down everything save the town hall office where they organise the bin men and be done with it? Sure. But if we do that, can we all agree TO STOP MOANING ABOUT IT AFTERWARDS?
It’s all very well a few hardy councilors saying valiantly that if we value it, we’ll use it. Truth is, if there’s a market for it, we’ll value it. So is there no market for the old town market place?
Yes. There actually is. We just need to do a few practical things to change some impressions.
People do want a town centre that’s in great shape. They do. Because they want to live in a town WITH a centre. With a heart. Who wants to be associated with a place that’s dead inside? Out of town places may be culturally soulless and dead everywhere at night, but people partly imagine they’re where the action is. Because everyone else is there. Giving these places value.
The problem is, if the brand value of your town centre is pretty crap and it really isn’t ‘your sort of place’ it’s a little harder to change than your brand of lager.
I think you could look at a place like Bournemouth and, for all its idiosyncratic problems and cultural mores, see that the two most significant challenges it’s facing are really national ones. Because, I can’t help feeling that before we try building any grand new developments with our fingers crossed, there are a couple of key things we need to try carefully to demolish. A couple of things that are justly best said through a disparaging nasally impression of some municipal nerd:
Landlords’ perceptions of retail space value, and most of the highways infrasture.
Did you do the voice?
Back to impressions. Like I say, we most respond to these damn-fool notions, not outright logic. If we see an empty shop, we feel a bit depressed. If we see a shop full of something unusual, we feel intrigued. We may actually go in…
If we see railings and bollards and thick double yellows and hefty kerb stones and tarmac and islands of circling chevrons, we feel we’re in the wrong place. We’re in a place meant for cars. Not a place meant for us. If we see a flagstoned open area with chairs and tables, we feel ready for a coffee and a nice little sit down and oh go on then a danish. And maybe another coffee. Because there appears to be free WIFI too.
It’s not difficult. And it needn’t be mesmerisingly expensive. But it may cost us in our perceptions.
If we change our expectations as a landlord or an estate agent that by allowing creative exhibitions and mini retail experiments to ‘pop up’ in vacant stores we are ‘wasting’ prime real estate income, and see that this is in fact bringing LIFE into a dead space… we will actually be boosting people’s perception of the value of that very space.
I know you’ll tell me this is just not that simple. That it can’t be done because of blah. Well blah is exactly what it is, mate. You’re just not trying.
We could be encouraging more sustainable businesses to take root in the town by offering more realistic, affordable rates – and so not only get some actual ruddy income IN from that empty unit but help build a much more valuable proposition to potential customers for the whole area it’s in.
We will be creating a market. Is what we’ll be doing. We’ll be adding value. To, like, everything.
Mark had given me a lift to the breakfast meet. The good proprietor of 612 Media. Having also been invited by Andy, he’s actually by coincidence already been involved with one of Feria’s workshops on the night time economy challenges of Bournemouth, and so knew Richard. Even featured in one of his slides, as I recall.
I think the thing intriguing him, and also Andy, is the mix of issues this involves. Running a successful town involves a lot of practical management of bricks and mortar – developers, estate agents, housing associations, landlords, retailers have much to do with the shape of your average street, for sure.
But when you’re dealing with the habits and instincts and reactions of people, you have to do much more than get them to sign a robust tenancy agreement. You have to do much more than rail them in from the traffic. You have to do much more than police them heavily when they see nothing else to do in a space than get cheaply drunk.
You have to inspire them.
Which means this has to also involve creatives. The sort of people who don’t always feel their work is of such straightforward, consistently marketable value. Artists, entertainers, designers. But people who know exactly how to make a space work.
And social needs professionals. Those who deal with the sharp end of human struggles, when environment has wreaked havoc on someone’s confidence. Homeless charities, rehab projects, street services, club chaplaincies. People who deal with people at their most vulnerable. Who mop up those needs of a society.
Get the environment, the shared space, the shared perception of a place… get that flowing well. Mixing the uses, integrating the needs, increasing the reasons for different people to see something of value there, something desirable in being part of it. Do this, and your emergency services will have less to do in any one location in town at the weekend. Fact.
Together, we need to shape an environment that inspires. You. Me. Individuals with all kinds of different needs at any one time of day. Achieving this civic aim may be the most valuable thing a marketplace of people will ever do.
Because, I tell you. The inspired individual?
Man, they’re worth something.