19 February 2012

Ideas to regenerate the seaside

Our B2B magazine Seaside Business - released as part of the course - gets a columnist

What is the relevance of a national report on the state of UK commerce to seaside resorts? Does it give an idea of what kind of vintage sweeties for pick'n'mix shops to stock? Does it give a sense of what bikini styles are going to be most desirable this summer? Perhaps it requires an intermediary to translate broader trends into something useful for individual regions. I accept my task with a full sense of the responsibility weighing on my shoulders.

The ONS released a favourable report on retail sales last week, which showed an average growth of 0.9% between December and January. Particularly favourable were sales of clothing and food. As is usually the case in an uncertain economic climate, larger household appliances and more expensive technological items become a less popular investment. I remember, from examining a previous report, that food could be further divided into "specialist" and "non-specialist."

Specialist food items are also becoming increasingly popular, as Heston Blumenthal's Waitrose range will testify to. Soon to be released for Easter: Earl Grey and mandarin-flavoured hot cross buns. "For a bit of extra indulgence we have added even more fruit to the traditional hot cross bun and before adding, we soaked the fruit in Earl Grey tea, giving it a subtle fragrance," said Blumenthal. At £1.59 for two hot cross buns, this should be a profitable venture for him and for Waitrose.

What are the kind of gourmet items a seaside resort could promote? How about a specialist brand of fish and chips? Culinary innovators like the owner of the Harbour Lights restaurant in Falmouth have successfully pushed sustainable fish and chips, ensuring that cod is either freshly caught, or that alternative fish are offered like haddock and crab. They also initiated 'cod-free week.' Why not follow the trend towards weird and wonderful new ingredients... shark kebab, anyone? Piranha steak with a side of caviar and stir-fried seaweed? Penguin...?

Perhaps not, especially considering the controversy such cruelty towards cute, non-scaly animals provokes in the fashion world towards the use of fur and even, for vegetarians, the use of leather (Stella McCartney made a faux-leather range, which has since spawned a number of imitators.) And fashion is big business. The Telegraph wrote that British fashion generated £21billion last year - twice as much as the British car industry. How can coastal regions capitalise on this
widespread aspiration towards a luxury lifestyle?

Well for starters, by successfully bidding for clothes factories. Mulberry has recently been given a grant to open a second factory in Somerset, and the designer Maria Grachvogel said she had been forced to begin making clothes in the UK again because her Polish factory could not cope with demand. There is a large domestic market for these products, so seaside towns can take ownership of some elements of production, as well as fostering local talent with design courses and apprenticeships. Bognor Regis College of Fashion might not be a phrase that rolls off the tongue, but there is scope for small-scale development of boutiques and vintage markets. These are always a tourist attraction.

It would also be necessary to develop a coherent, or even several distinctive, regional brands. Nautical or seaside kitsch are two of the obvious themes. Clean, crisp navy combinations work for those of a minimalist bent, while Hawaiian shirts and prints appeal to more laid-back surfer types. What exactly is 'seaside kitsch' though? Let us define it. Lacking the semantic subtlety myself, I turn to Milan Kundera, in The Incredible Lightness of Being:

"The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children running on the grass, the motherland betrayed, first love.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."

So... T-shirts emblazoned with the slogans "Brighton Rock(s)", "I (heart) Skegness," "My parents took me to Blackpool and someone in the market tried to buy my sister for 30 donkeys," "Are you going to Scarborough Pier?", "The only way is Bournemouth," etc. The Havaiana flip-flop gained world-wide renown on the basis of its name, some cunning use of brand ambassadors, and the fact it came in a wide range of colours. Why not launch a deluxe version of the humble jelly shoe? And while you're at it, bring in a troop of morris-dancers.

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