Holywell’s High Street is a shell of its former self, as e-commerce and bigger cities increasingly draw shoppers.CreditTom Jamieson for The New York Times
HOLYWELL, Wales — Officials in this Welsh town will soon install free Wi-Fi along their lone shopping street. They are erecting the first electric car chargers in the area. And this past winter, small businesses began partnering with an American mobile payments system in the hope of getting more people in their stores.
This is small-town tech — the scattershot response as communities try in any way possible to draw shoppers back to their High Streets and Main Streets.
Many places like Holywell are experimenting with new technologies and digital services, in a defensive crouch against the dominance of e-commerce and the lure of bigger cities. Along with the car chargers and free Wi-Fi, officials here have added digital “beacons” that describe local attractions to aid smartphone-toting tourists.
Although such efforts will hardly insulate their economies, the alternative amounts to giving up. Shop owners are hopeful the moves will help them survive, and improve the mood of an area that has seen decades of decline.
“At the end of the day, we’re a little town in the middle of nowhere,” said Ted Palmer, whose barbershop lies just off Holywell’s main shopping area, the High Street. “Unless you’re open to change, you will drown.”
Holywell lies close to a Christian religious site popular with tourists and is a short drive from the Welsh coast, but it has always relied on its shops to fuel the local economy. In recent years, though, many have closed, including a stationery store, a drugstore and an appliance retailer. Then, in a matter of months, three of the town’s four bank branches closed.
Its High Street is a shell of its former self. Shopping is increasingly being done over the internet, and major retailers are able to drive down prices while offering premium services like next-day delivery on hard-to-find items.
Customers in Holywell can have their groceries brought straight to their front doors from online supermarkets like Ocado, and much else from the shopping behemoth Amazon. Instead of local grocery stores, residents can drive up to a mammoth Tesco supermarket a short distance from the High Street, or take the short walk to Home Bargains, a nationwide discount retailer.
Indeed, in much of Britain and the world, people can use smartphones and the internet to get restaurants to dispatch food to their homes, arrange an appointment with a repair person or cleaner, and have their laundry picked up. (Mr. Palmer joked that, for now at least, haircuts could not be delivered online.)
The bank branch closings here hit particularly hard. The buildings that once housed them stand unoccupied, one of them still bearing a silhouette of the lender that departed, HSBC.
The closings have forced stores to keep large amounts of cash on site, leaving some shop owners fearful of burglaries or thefts. People who would have gone into the town to do their banking are going elsewhere. And foot traffic into the center of Holywell, a town with a population of 9,000, has dropped off drastically.
When Helen Ryles-Owen opened her stationery store in the middle of Holywell, her only local competitor had recently shut down, and her sister promised to help run the new business. But their timing — opening just weeks before the bank closings began — was bad.
“Would I have opened here” knowing the branches were closing, Ms. Ryles-Owen asked. “I would have thought twice.”
The efforts by Holywell to transform itself and its town center belie its long history. In the British vernacular, Holywell is a market town. Edward I granted monks a charter to establish a weekly market here in the 13th century, and they used it to sell ale and collect taxes from farmers and traders who came to hawk their wares. By the beginning of the 19th century, there were dozens of shops, inns and beer houses.
While the weekly market still continues, it now varies between around 25 stalls during the Christmas period, down to half a dozen during the cold and wet days of winter. Offices of the local council, which is responsible for issues like garbage collection as well as services like libraries, moved to another town long ago, taking jobs with them. Workers at a nearby quarry and asphalt plant rarely venture into Holywell, staying instead at a hotel on the town’s outskirts.
The High Street, which runs less than 300 yards, is today an assortment of cafes, barber shops and stores selling items ranging from e-cigarettes to shoes. The lone surviving bank branch, of the Spanish lender Santander, has a single ATM. Holywell residents complain there is always a queue, and the machine frequently runs out of cash.
The town’s embrace of tech was happenstance.
In recent years, the monthly meetings of a local government committee featured regular discussion of the difficulties faced by the town’s High Street and potential solutions. The High Street, which was fully pedestrianized decades ago, would be reopened to vehicle traffic. Electric vehicle chargers would be installed to lure wealthier car owners. Free Wi-Fi would be added to help ensure those customers stuck around.
Then at the Labour Party’s annual conference in September, David Hanson, Holywell’s member of Parliament, ran into Sarah Harvey, who heads the British operations of Square, the American mobile payments company. A trial was hatched.
Square would offer its card readers — small white boxes that connect to a smartphone — free to businesses in Holywell. And the Silicon Valley company would use the experience to learn about companies in Britain, a market it had entered only months earlier.
For small businesses, Square and others like it can be a cheaper alternative to the companies that currently dominate card processing. Square typically sells its card readers for a one-off charge, and then levies a flat 1.75 percent fee on all card transactions carried out in-store. Traditional services that are usually found in stores usually charge a monthly rental for readers, and often require longer-term contracts.
Retailers in Holywell say another benefit is the portability of Square’s readers, which connect easily to smartphones and can be carried to trade fairs and shows. This month, Ms. Ryles-Owen took her card reader to the Llandudno Extravaganza, a Victorian-themed fair about 30 miles from Holywell.
Business owners here are cleareyed about the impact so far. The service has not suddenly driven a significant increase in trade, nor do they expect it to. But many say it has stanched a fall, and allowed them to appeal to a wider array of customers, particularly younger ones, who use cash less than previous generations.
At a recent reception held near Parliament in London, Mr. Hanson, representatives from Square and Holywell business owners related their experience to more than a dozen lawmakers. Questions ranged from how the system worked (trial units were on hand) to how fast entrepreneurs received payments (the next working day).
Russ Warburton, 56, was one of more than 60 business owners in Holywell who signed up for Square. Revenue for his lighting business had fallen by almost 30 percent after the branch closings. Using Square helped flatten that out. He acknowledged that was a small victory, but one that nevertheless encouraged him — and other fellow business owners — to consider new investments. Mr. Warburton is now expanding from lighting to antiques and refurbishing furniture.
“It doesn’t solve the problem,” Mr. Warburton, the chairman of the town’s business council, said. “You’re never going to get the High Street back to what it was 30, 40 years ago, because people’s shopping habits have changed.”
“We’re just trying everything we can to bring people back into the town.”