This week we spoke with Erica Roffe, member of our High Street Advisory Board, Director at BedPop and local champion for Bedford. In 2013, Erica launched BedPop to continue utilising slack space in Bedford town centre. With the support of the Portas Pilot Town Team she ran 19 projects in the former Pizza Hut building at 68 High Street for six months, working with dozens of artists, entrepreneurs, makers, crafters, students and curators. We wanted to learn more about the work she does and her views on the future of independent retail.


Can you tell us about the work you do with Explore Bedford?

Since 2010, we have been striving to change perceptions about Bedford. We run pop up events, publish an arts & culture magazine and have just launched Explore Bedford with the aim of raising the profile of Bedford Borough as a visitor destination. We aim to increase pride and engagement among residents and to increase the value of the visitor economy. Bedford’s independent retailers are at the heart of our campaign. We have more indie retailers than Cambridge – and we should be shouting that from the rooftops!


Can you tell us about Bedford and the state of its independent retail scene?

The indie retail scene is thriving in Bedford. In the last year, over 35 independent shops have either opened, expanded or relocated into new premises.  Rogan’s Books was voted among the top 39 independent bookshops in the country, Slide Record Shop garnered a mention in Graham Jones’ book, The Vinyl Revival and the Shops That Made It Happen and the newly opened Beerfly has certainly captured the imagination of the town’s craft beer fans…  One of Explore Bedford’s members, Emma Garrett of Pavilion in the Park has been selected as one of this year’s Small Business Saturday SmallBiz100, so we’re certainly starting to make our mark.


What are the biggest challenges facing Bedford’s high streets today?

Rent and rates, lack of disposable income, online shopping, parking – all the usual suspects.

Bedford is a fairly typical market town, although it is growing rapidly. We are finding a lot of families are moving out of London, attracted by the – relatively – reasonable house prices, plus there are huge numbers of new houses being built on the periphery of the town. Our challenge is twofold: enticing the new arrivals into Bedford and reminding the locals that their town centre is worth supporting. We have a good mix of chain stores and indies; it’s about enhancing the visitor and customer experience so that there is a compelling reason to come – and to come back.


How are Bedford’s retailers adapting to survive?

We have an Edwardian arcade in Bedford which has recently seen a number of its units become vacant. In order to attract new businesses, the Arcade’s owners are dividing the larger shops into smaller, more manageable units. Due to their smaller size they are under the rateable value, making them more attractive to start-ups and small businesses who may not be able to afford additional business costs including the BID levy.


If you could encourage a local retailer to develop a skill or take a class, what would it be?

Embracing the theatricality of retail. #morethanretail

In-store events, experiences, hands-on workshops and collaborations all enhance the customer experience and create a connection. Book signings, tastings, shopping evenings, screenings, DJs, pop up shops, personal appearances, mini festivals, in-store art galleries, entertainment – it’s about creating an experience that just cannot be missed and definitely cannot be replicated online.


When has a local business surprised you in a positive way and how did they do it?

One of the town centre retailers has really stepped up to the plate to provide some Christmas entertainment this year. I can’t say what it is, but they really have gone above and beyond with the aim of creating something unique that will attract visitors from further afield.


Where can we find out more about you and the work that you do?

You can check out www.thebedfordclanger.com, the art & culture magazine that we run. Our website www.explorebedford.co.uk will be launching shortly but we’re already on Facebook and twitter (@BedfordExplore).  The events we run can be found at www.bedpop.co.uk.