April 20, 2009 / 3:44 PM / 8 years ago

Startup helps mask recession's black eyes

<p>A man walks past a boarded-up pub in central London January 15, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville</p>

LONDON (Reuters) - Former banker Andrew Field has just the thing for British towns fighting a losing battle against downtown rot: colorful “skins” that cover storefronts and keep shoppers’ eyes off the empty shops behind.

Streetskins, the company he founded in June 2008 after quitting his job at a major British bank, offers a quick fix to councils with one too many black eyes on their high streets at a time when more shops are going bust due to the recession.

“I was on my way home on the bus one day and noticed how many shops were shut with very ugly steel shutters,” he told Reuters.

“In a place like London where space is at such a premium, I thought there’s got to be a better use for them,” he said.

After experimenting with vinyl printing -- no good on the corrugated iron of store shutters, he said -- Field developed and patented a spring-loaded mechanism for displaying images.

The idea appealed to retailers and commercial landlords who wanted to supplement their income by advertising during closing hours, generating 25-40 percent of total revenue, Field said.

So far he has dressed 16 sites with “skins” featuring adverts or bright lifestyle imagery, and said many councils had expressed interest in papering over their empty shops.

Croydon, south-west of London, with many vacant stores, is among the councils considering using skins as a foil to the “ghost town” syndrome of darkened storefronts.

“We think it’s a good idea,” said Croydon Council Business Executive Brian Stapleton.

“You see a picture in the newspaper that makes places look desolate, it can portray an unfair image of the town center.”

Britain’s empty shop problem has caught the attention of government officials, who recently unveiled a plan to help councils come up with creative uses for disused businesses.

Under the plan, local authorities are empowered to turn empty locales into cafes, galleries, and community centers, among other uses and get funding for temporary transformations.

Field, who came to the United Kingdom from South Africa five years ago, said his business was well-timed to coincide with a wave of insolvencies sweeping the country.

“As high street retailers go through troubled times, they tend to be open to any idea that will make them money,” he said.

With several more contracts under review, Field said he hopes his business will gather enough momentum to compete with outdoor advertising giants like Clear Channel, which dominates billboards in the United Kingdom.

“Slowly but surely I will start to make an impact,” he said.

Editing by Steve Addison

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