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Renewing traditional events to boost local retail in the city centre: the case of Romans

29 May 2018

RetaiLink french partner, Romans, is an example of how the experiences of retail revitalization in city centres are specially successfull when they are based on events already anchored in the territory, carried out in partnership with the municipality and the retailers, built with a diversity of partners and in a spirit of innovation and boldness, and adapting the lessons drawn from European experiences to the local. An article by Frédéric Deshayes.

Like many medium-sized cities in France, the city of Romans, 33,000 inhabitants, known as the capital city of shoes, suffers from a decline in the number of retail shops in the city center in the recent years. Although the situation is not so catastrophic, it is in line with the current situation in all medium-sized cities in France: a downturn in commercial activity in city centers, symbolized by a worrying commercial vacancy, competition from e-commerce and large peripheral commercial areas. Vacancy rates observed in different medium-sized cities go from 10 to 25%, in Romans this rate is between 10 to 12%.

The current municipality therefore wished to take action to reverse the trend, in order to give back to Romans its commercial attractiveness of yesteryear, Romans being also known to have always been a trading city. A Deputy Mayor is thus delegated to the commercial revitalization, and by the fall of 2015 a city center manager has been recruited to establish a municipal office for commerce -Office Municipal du Commerce- and to develop initiatives with retailers, with a view to revitalizing retail activities in the city center. Finally, in April 2016, Romans integrated the RetaiLink network, led by Igualada under the URBACT III program.

Three new retail revitalization experiments were conducted since the integration of Romans into the RetaiLink network.

1) "Braderie d'automne 2.0", a new event inspired by Igualada's "REC.0 Experimental Stores"

The "Braderie d'automne 2.0", an operation carried out by the two associations of Romans retailers, was inspired by what was seen in Igualada (Retailink Lead Partner) during the network kick-off meeting took in June 2016, during the event called “Rec 2.0”. The Rec 2.0 takes place twice a year in Igualada, and allows retailers, but also smaller traders, to occupy for 10 days old abandoned tanneries, and to sell at reduced prices, thus becoming a vast pop up outlet Center. The decoration, based on recycled materials, dynamic animations, but also the link with the city center retailers, allow this event to attract nearly 130 000 visitors per year over 10 days. One member of the Romans Urbact local group, the president of one of the two associations of Romans retailers, considers the June 2016 REC 2.0, as "the place to be". Back in Romans, she used some aspects of the REC in order to revitalize the traditional Romans autumn sale in October 2016: use of recycled material, innovative use of the street space, various animations and more in the spirit of time (Graffiti, signage on the ground, aerial decoration, etc…) gave a new air, dynamism, feeling and “emotion” to this commercial event, which revives the city center. While the preparatory work has been important, the result has lived up to expectations, result of an efficient upstream organization.

2) “Fête de la Pogne and Raviole” + refill the empty spaces with pop-up stores

The organization of the traditional “Fête de la Pogne and Raviole” -Raviole is a kind of ravioli stuffed with comté cheese and parsley, while Pogne is a kind of brioche- by the city of Romans was seen as an opportunity to revitalize city center retail activities, with the aim of showing that with a will, perseverance, energy, and taking some risks, it is possible to reverse the trend. It was therefore decided to amplify the aura of this very traditional event, whose first beneficiaries were bakers and manufacturers of raviole, giving it a larger scale. Pop-up shops were opened for two days in an ancient commercial street, connecting the city's shopping center to the historic center. This street is a strong symbolic marker of the (non) vitality of retail downtown (in some streets, the vacancy is close to 60%). The objective was to give it back its luster, and to demonstrate that the curve can be reversed.

The result was beyond expectations: a real added value for “La Fete de la Pogne and La Raviole”, with positive feedback from bakers with turnover increase: "the best edition for several years ", according to the participating bakers, but also from the" pop-up retailer”, eager to participate again, and whose activities had been beneficial. Becoming allies, the boutiques owners, active and positive partners of the operation, are then supporting the municipality approach. The success of the event reinforces the strategy, making it credible and underlines the municipality's real commitment to the thematic and to this spatial area.

Finally, the success had a strong symbolic significance: during a weekend, the inhabitants found again the affluences of the past in this street. This shows that it is possible to relaunch activities (which will doubtless never be those of the past, and which must be reinvented), when there is a determined will, available and shared means, and a real willingness to move forward. On the other side of the coin, during the festival, retail activities in other parts of the city was less active than the other days, underlining the need to think of the reactivation of city center retail in a systemic way, in a win-win attitude.


3) “Braderie d’été”: continuing the "Braderie d'Automne 2.0", involving more stakeholders

Finally, the “Braderie d’été” (summer sale) conducted by the retail associations, following the October 2016 “autumn sale”, also renewed this traditional event, developing it on an enlarged perimeter, with more animations. The real success of this operation also made it possible to bring back and rediscover a dynamic and commercial city center. It also showed that the involvement of each of the actors, retailers, municipalities, inhabitants and local associations is essential to the success of such operations.

Taking advantage of this dynamic stream, two events were celebrated at the end of 2017: the “ autumn sale 2.0” with a specific theme (vintage fashion) and a specific pop-up shop concept, and the Christmas market which will be organized this year in the remaining vacant shops of our historical center, and not in tents or wooden chalets as previous years.

Lessons learnt

The organization and successes of those events reinforce several analyzes:

- Working with all stakeholders is a must for retail revitalization, but it takes time, energy and resources. It is clear that today no one can expect everything from the other, the municipality from the retailers, the retailers from public authorities, etc. But, everything must be undertaken to bring the customer back to the city center, by all means, and with the support of all. The Urbact approach and the relationships created within Urbact local group are parts of the undeniable cohesion between partners.

- It is essential to develop new activities, but also to take advantage of the existing (the retail sale, the Pogne and the Raviole Festival) while renewing it, being imaginative and innovative (Braderie 2.0, pop-up stores), with the clear objective of supporting and relaunching retail. As a result, the "local retail" dimension becomes a cross-cutting and indispensable element in any local public action, and must be systematically introduced in each event in order to bring benefits to retail and to events, and eventually integrated development of the territory.

- It is quality more than quantity which makes the difference. In each of the events in Romans, the emphasis on quality offerings, but also on lived sensory experience, made a difference in downtown retail: retail is now able to offer what neither Internet, nor the peripheral trade can offer: a pleasant, comfortable environment, bringing pleasure and satisfaction to the potential customer, more eager then to consume in a place where he/she finds again sense in its purchasing act.

- Despite the particular security atmosphere in France following terrorist’s attacks, outdoor operations are possible, and must be privileged, in order to ensure a strong and diverse life, activities, and thus footfall contributors.

- Finally, it seems nevertheless evident that not all the vacant shops will probably reopen. Retail has changed, it has to adapt to its evolutions. It is also necessary to think in terms of mixing activities: tertiary activities, professions in private practices, trainings, administrations, which also draw footfall, potential customers, as well as bringing back inhabitants, first customers in the downtown area.

All these recommendations were expressed, theoretically or practically, at each transnational meetings of the RetaiLink network. They emphasize how the exchange of experiences, the external viewpoint on a particular situation, allows innovation, experimentation and new ideas to be developed for the development of trade in the city center and thus for urban development in general, for the well-being of its inhabitants and its users.