Jacobs Allen director Keith Senior shares how businesses can support Bury St Edmunds centre growth
Jacobs Allen is one of the leading accountants and tax advisors in Bury St Edmunds, but is easy to miss along Abbeygate Street.
The office, which has been their home for 12 years, does not stand out among the restaurants, bars and cafés on the busy shopping street.
But, as I am about to discover, it is firms like this that provide stability for more eye-catching neighbours.
Keith Senior, company director, has recently stepped down as finance director of Our Bury St Edmunds – the town’s Business Improvement District (BID) – board after eight years.
Born in Yorkshire town Barnsley, he has also lived in London, but for most of his life has chosen to live and work in Bury.
“It has a good mix of retail and professional businesses as well as a good night time economy and a variety of shops,” he explains. “I think a lot of people are envious.”
“Online retail has its cost advantages – but people do not always want the cheapest, they want good customer service,” Keith Senior
As part of our Love Local campaign, the Bury Free Press has already featured how the 73 independent shops in St John’s Street are a local treasure, and how interactive venues like Oakes Barn can generate community spirit. But it needs safeguarding, with several retailers reporting a decline in sales as online shopping grows.
Mr Senior is backing our campaign, and has echoed the call of his former BID colleague Heather Warren, owner of Oakes Barn, for all parties to work together.
“Individuals around here can take it for granted,” he says. “People say it is a shame when shops close but they have to make money. Shops have to be used to be saved and everyone has a responsibility.
“I think more people should look as much as they can for opportunities to support local shops, it has to be the mindset.
“I think it is a necessity for people to be thinking about how they live and work – and I think Love Local is a great way of supporting that.”
As well as encouraging individuals to use shops, or risk losing them, Mr Senior has called on the retailers to offer a service impossible to replicate online.
“Online retail has its cost advantages – but people do not always want the cheapest, they want good customer service,” he says.
“Shops need to find the niche, it’s a difficult one for a lot of retailers selling products. In the end the customer is wanting something that is cost-effective. Time has become the most precious commodity, everyone has to take time considerations into account – the more we can help people to spend it the most effectively.
“There has been much more focus on online shopping and more focus on customer service, because the thing that causes people to go and shop in a town is that it has got to be differentiated from experiences elsewhere – it is impersonal online.
“The critical thing for retail is to offer something that is a bit different. It’s great that we have got relatively few empty units. But these shops have got to compete against online retail, so offering extremely good customer service and doing things that go beyond the norm, and meets a customer’s needs.”
As part of Love Local, the Bury Free Press has heard from St John’s Street shops Micks Cycles, Vinyl Hunter and Pocket Watch & Petticoats on how they are offering a service worth travelling for.
But Bury is also home to many of what Mr Senior calls professional businesses, which consist of estate agents and banks, as well as accountants like his own.
Can these enterprises play a part in protecting the high street?
Mr Senior says: “Being in the centre of towns is a feature that we really like. Having businesses in the town can have an impact on the retail outlets, as staff can use these, in their lunch breaks, for example.
“Professional businesses have a role to play in making the economy more rounded. There is a level of interaction that happens which is based on a degree of familiarity.”
Mr Senior says he stepped down from the BID board because of other commitments, and to allow ‘new blood to come in’.
He believes his near-decade of service has helped ‘improve people’s perception of Bury St Edmunds’ and describes the experience as a ‘journey of discovery’.
Engaging in projects like the BID can be another way for professional businesses to help a town centre- and Mr Senior knows that more people coming into town can have a knock-on effect for his line of trade.
“It got help to bring events to the town to increase the profile. We were in national newspapers.
“Part of the success has been to make Bury St Edmunds more widely known as a tourist destination and for its mix of quality places and we need to be proud of it.
“We developed some attractions, things like the ice rink in the arc and the Food and Drink Festival was a really invaluable thing to do and a lot of towns in the east now look up to Bury as a town to aspire to.
“The BID events are more geared to getting people into the town, so we do not get a direct benefit from that, but it does mean there is more attention for Bury as a good place to live and work.”