Thursday, 8 January 2015

** STOP PRESS ** exciting New Watford Market updates

A meeting was held at Watford Market food court 5pm Wednesday 7th January between the Watford Market traders and the operating company Town & Country Markets.

The traders had done an excellent job of preparing a list of issues around the food court, downstairs market, and connectivity to both the high street, and the Clarendon road ends of the market.

Town and country's MD Andrew Sparrow admitted that everyone including themselves, the market traders, and the council had underestimated the impact of relocating the market 200 metres up the road. Essentially the footfall tap has been turned off. The primary concern now is how to make changes to the market to increase footfall and rebuild the market clientele.

Andrew Sparrow went on to say we can not tackle the Market Project under a shroud of  a blame culture mentality, everyone has to be batting from the same side of the fence. The actual site of the market, warts and all has been inherited by Town & Country Markets from Watford Council, they have signed a 10 year deal and are committed to make it work. It's not perfect by a long way, but some of the complaints regarding the toilet facilities and cleaning from my earlier post have already been resolved. A PA system is also being installed to improve the overall ambience and visitor experience.

The main issues that are first on the hit list for improvement are :-

1. Signage

This has been a real bug bear from day 1. Would be market visitors still believe the New Watford Market is in the high street exacerbated on Saturdays when 'day pitch' traders line the main high street. Without an arrow on the bridge, pavement markings and suitable banners, posters, A boards etc. people quite simply can't find the market even if they want too!

The other end of the market really does need some quite drastic action. This does look like a car park & rubbish area, not an entrance to a £2 million market investment!

Andrew assured the assembled traders that improvements in signage is going to happen, two weeks was mentioned, but expressed placing a large arrow on the overpass did require council consent and that is not a simple process. Come on Watford businesses... Is there not a sign company that would provide an arrow sign at favourable prices in return for copious local free advertising? And come on Watford Council, clear away the bureaucracy and support the people of Watford, if the job was worth doing, then it's worth doing well... please...

2. Brightening up the market

It's pretty grey out there at the moment in January, but it is positively black in the new market! What were they thinking? Yes it's a blank canvass, but just walking through the market there are large parts of the eyeline which are dominated by black.

The worst experience of this is walking towards the enclosed section towards the high street where the containers stacked on top of each other to create the upstairs food court is just a big black area.

Andrew mentioned they were seeking to work with local artists or perhaps a West Herts college to provide Muriel's, artistic Graffiti or 3D-Paintings to improve the experience and a point of interest for those visiting the market. These would be reworked every 3 months to keep things vibrant with artists perhaps at work during trading hours. Clear signage to indicate the Food Court is upstairs would also be included as there is nothing to indicate its presence from this angle.

Other initiatives include hanging banners from the overhead ceiling to again draw people through the market and increase footfall throughout. Colour coded unit names / numbers will also be implemented at add colour and difference to each stall, rather than the plain back and white as now.

3. Heating upstairs in the food court

Currently no one is going to sit outside and eat when you can sit in the warm in Barracuda, Nando's, McDonald's and a whole heap of other eating outlets closeby. Andrew Sparrow indicated he has reached an agreement with the council to install outside heaters upstairs which are to be sited at locations agreed by the food stall owners. The issues relating to traffic noise, pollution and exposure to the elements will be covered further on in this post.

The three items above are to be funded jointly between the council and Town & Country Markets and represent solutions to the most immediate issues. These solutions should stop the rot and provide a more solid platform to begin the process of increasing the footfall once more.

The time for taking action is now, and I think all of us along with all the traders look forward to seeing a swift and comprehensive implementation of the above plans. Any less quite frankly would be a major setback in creating the successful working relationship that the traders and Town & Country Markets must build in order to turn this around.

Upstairs experience

The traders indicated that in the artists impression of the New Market (which was the basis on which they signed their agreements) there was considerable protection from the elements upstairs.

Andrew stated that this was not going to happen... However, perhaps if there were three options investigated, Gold, Silver, Bronze options, all fully costed that perhaps this might provide a discussion document and hope of a way forward. Town & Country Markets have committed to getting this actioned and providing the various quotes for consideration.

Downstairs in the main market area

There are many issues downstairs but paramount is the footfall issue. As mentioned above colour and signage is expected to make some difference, but there is much more needed to bring people to the market.

The run-up to Christmas; carols and rock band went down well and appeared to indicate something that could be expanded upon and I'll come on to that in a bit. Although significant other marketing activities (a document was handed out) had been undertaken by Town & Country Markets before Xmas the traders felt that it was misplaced or had minimal impact.

Andrew went on to suggest that Sophie (marketing person for Town & Country) wasn't based in a Watford and that marketing is not something that should be done to the new market but that 'in the spirit of mutual co-operation' we should all participate in pooling our combined knowledge and experience to tackle the footfall challenge.

Some ideas please?

The area just to the right upon passing through the metal gates when entering the market from the high street could be utilised as a Creative corner. Local talented people could apply to perform (In a similar way to London buskers) such as groups, choirs, poets, artists, crafts all free of charge to bring variety, character and some atmosphere to the market.

Instead of having all the 'day traders' in the high street encourage some of those into the main market to add a different flavour to the permanent traders. It is believed that there is not the right mix of traders or insufficient diversity and visitors have been heard to say 'is this it? Is this all there is?'.

Attracting a rich mix of traders to create a unique experience has to be one of the key objectives going forward. To this end Andrew suggested that a much more targeted selection process would be implemented in the future but that this should have much greater input from the traders themselves who know what is being asked for by market visitors.

One of the issues raised again was the lacklustre entrance at the Clarendon road end. Andrew reminded the traders that the car parking spaces were not going to disappear anytime soon (leases, people & red tape) and that extensive reworking of this area was going to be more long term, however things could be done. Superior signage would be investigated with improved banners to 'catch the eye' of Clarendon road office staff would be a start. At present few consider walking into Watford through the market entrance, I suspect this is because it doesn't look much like an entrance or very welcoming. Many I would suggest know little, if anything about the New Market either!

Specialist market themes. Having a rolling schedule of different themes and bringing these themed traders inside the market, combined with good marketing. This is to be evaluated and recommendations drawn up. Town & Country Markets have experience and a history of running and organising events so a good use of their skill set.

Possible Sunday market. Currently the market is closed on a Sunday. Options here include switching the Wednesday market to a Sunday as Wednesdays appear to be very slow, or opening the market on Sundays for specialist types of markets to raise the awareness of the market and it's location.

Free food Friday. An idea implemented in other Market locations. Building connections with larger businesses and local establishments to offer schemes / rewards for using the market food stalls. At present few of the offices know of the market food court or the variety of excellent foods on offer. Lots of potential for offering a world foods delivery service with selection from the different food stalls available; Sushi, Chinese, Vietnamese, Turkish, Mexican, Argentinian and traditional cafe food.

Booth in the High Street providing info on the market. Suggested by Damion (Junction Flowers), could there not be a Market booth in the high street distributing trader leaflets, trader positional map and other information regarding the market to passers by.

Adverts on the rear of containers visible to drivers using the ring road. Currently the containers are all black, is this not a wasted opportunity. Could it be investigated as to whether the containers could act as advertisement bill boards for market and / or traders promotion.

Planting some greenery. A quick route to improving the look and feel of the market would be some greenery and plants. The pedestrianised high street is now devoid of vegetation and the market could be a green oasis in an otherwise bricks and mortar environment.

Political idea in this election year. Markets have until recently been the hub of community life. Central location for local commerce but also a meeting place and bringing together of the community. Town & Country Markets have offered to provide each of the main parties through an 'open letter' (published in the local press and on this website) a unit to come and talk to local people about what they would do for the people of Watford. This would culminate in a final week with all candidates participating in a 'local question time' session. This would undoubtedly generate a lot of publicity and bring much greater awareness of the market to the wider Watford community, and bring footfall in this period between now and the end of April and once again put the Market at the centre of the local community. Link4Growth in SW Herts has volunteered to assist in setting this up.

Marketing update

Sophie from Town & Country markets advised that the New Watford Market has now been added to the Town & Country Markets Website (look under the markets section Watford is right at the end)

However the most important website for the Watford Market is the local website New Watford Market website along with the local Twitter account @watfordmarket. Each of the Market Traders has their own section of the Watford Website... and you can check that out here...

We are also building a library of Trader video's these will be regularly updated and allow you to meet the traders before visiting the Market... take a look at these here...

It is clear that going forward every trader also has to take personal responsibility for their ability to participate online as well as actually being in the market itself. Enabling people to find the physical market is one thing but there is growing requirement for the traders to support each other online too. Twitter, Facebook, Google+ are no longer options they are necessities and Link4Growth is fully behind assisting traders in becoming proficient so that we can work as an online team... #L4GBuyLocalWatford is a hashtag that we are already using to enable local businesses in Watford to work together.

Who are the customers for the new market?

It is common knowledge that a significant drop in the footfall to the new market has been due to the age demographic of those who visited the old market. This group of people regularly caught the bus and then almost stepped straight into the market. 200 metres up the road with no bus service has meant that the vast majority of these customers are no longer able to utilise the market.

The new market requires a new set of clients too. But Who? ... and what will these new clients expect to find or what do they need from the new market? ... within the answers to these questions coupled with a pleasant visitor experience we will find the keys to the success of the New Market project.

Of course the answers aren't immediately available, this will take some time, thought, and collaboration to come up with the right way forward. To this end Andrew Sparrow suggested forming a series of collaborative working teams to cover 3 main areas. These groups will meet on a monthly basis be chaired by Town & Country and will provide a real feedback loop to enable positive action to be taken. The groups include a minimum of 3 people and cover the following :-

1. Marketing the Market
This group will be looking at the target audience for the market, where they are located, how best to reach them. The group will be looking to make the £20K marketing budget reach as far as £50k would do, by enlisting the help of the community to support promotions on social media for a start, and working with businesses and their staff to raise awareness of the market. No idea will be left unconsidered however daft it might initially look. Combining the actions here with improvements being delivered by the other groups it is expected that a significant difference can be achieved in the first quarter of 2015.

2. Retailing - types of stalls in the market
The new market consists of a mix of old market occupants and those that are brand new to Watford market. In all honesty the selection process has been more about being delighted to have a unit taken rather than what kinds of stalls and businesses ought to be in the new market.

The new market is a completely changed proposition to the old one, not just in location, but in atmosphere, style and number of different businesses. It is a lot smaller which means each unit is more important. The physical aspect to the market is very different and the food court changes the emphasis somewhat too.

This group has been set up to look at what does the new market need to make it a unique and a 'must visit' destination for those coming to Watford.

3. Physical Infrastructure
There are improvements that can and are being implemented to the infrastructure right now. Others in the wishlist might take a little longer, and yet others still might need other solutions to solve the challenges being experienced.

This group's purpose is to look at the site and to create an inviting and vibrant atmosphere that will attract people to the market, keep them in the market for longer and ensure they come back again, and perhaps as important as any of those; tell others to come and visit too!

Clearly all three of these groups will be working together as they are all intertwined and decisions in one effect the other two.

Strategy and Steering Committee

The final 'Team' is the Market strategy and Steering Committee. This team will comprise of people not only from the market itself but other adjacent large businesses, small independent businesses in Watford and others that have an interest in seeing the market succeed.

This committee will look at the Market in a wider context in relation to its importance in the community as a business hub but also as an essential meeting place for the community. It will be taking input from the other groups and will look at ensuring the market goes from strength to strength.

There are already two community events hosted at the New Watford Market each month by Link4Growth, with the specific purpose of bringing people into the market and introducing them to the Market Traders and the Food court. These two Link4Coffee events can be found here, along with the other events run by Link4Growth in the SW Herts district. The next is in actual fact this Saturday 10th Jan 2015.

Summary and final comment

There is a lot to do. The market has taken a huge step backwards. But the market traders want to see the market thriving and, as you can read above, Town & Country Markets are throwing themselves into the project too. This post is long, it is expansive and it contains a lot of information about what is being done right now, what can be done in a month or so and ideas about turning it around. It is a roadmap for improvement, and I believe for one, that if everyone does what they say they will do, we will be looking back in a year from now with admiration of what has been created.

Let's not underestimate the task ahead though... it is enormous and will require a gargantuan effort from us all, so best feet forward.

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