WHETHER it’s profit warnings, rent cuts or collapses into administration, hardly a day goes by without some “high street apocalypse” headline.

Conditions in bricks-and-mortar retail – including out-of-town retail as well as high streets – are certainly tough at the moment, not helped by a multitude of factors coming together – still-sluggish consumer confidence, the ever-increasing prominence of online, relentless uncertainty over Brexit, and the struggle to cover rents and business rates.

Amid the gloom, though, we could do with spending a bit more time celebrating all the positive stuff that’s still happening in retail – including plenty here in County Durham.

Take Durham city centre. Many were writing it off when the closure of BHS in 2016 was followed, last year, by M&S, leaving two of the city’s biggest retail premises up for grabs.

However, many towns experience ebbs and flows in their commercial property markets, and an apparent crisis can soon be turned around by some good news. Recently, the city’s former BHS site was taken over by discount department store TJ Hughes, while fashion chain M&Co moved into the old M&S, following a successful temporary let in the ex-BHS.

These important lettings, along with the ongoing mixed-use developments at Riverwalk and Milburngate, bode well for the city centre’s future as a retail and leisure destination, with Durham BID (Business Improvement District) providing important leadership and marketing clout.

In a smaller town like Chester-le-Street, it’s the independent traders that tend to play a more important role – here, only a third of shops are national names. The “Shop Chester-le-Street” project that I manage, funded by both Durham County Council and local retail landlords, is not only actively promoting the town as a place to visit, but is also helping its independent businesses grow their own digital marketing skills and confidence.

Thanks to everyone working together, here too there is much to celebrate. Retail occupancy in the town centre has increased from 86 per cent to 91 per cent in a year, though a few new closures are a reminder against complacency. Meanwhile, with popular new eateries like Miss Elephant and Sarah’s Deli, innovations like The Craft Fair Company pop-up shop in St Cuthbert’s Walk shopping centre, and new operators reviving the street market, Chester-le-Street looks healthier than it has for some years – providing a model for how other small towns can harness their strengths through improved marketing and mentoring.

There are still some national retailers on the expansion trail, too. The Works has been a popular addition to Chester-le-Street since opening in July, and also boosted Bishop Auckland town centre when it opened there in January.

Just as the Shop Chester-le-Street project is spreading the word about the town’s charms – reaching 30,000 local people on Facebook during the Cricket World Cup – other places in County Durham are also using digital marketing to build awareness and drive footfall. One particularly good campaign is Love Beamish and Stanley, which not only encourages local businesses to support and promote each other, but makes great use of online video to open people’s eyes to what the area offers.

In Darlington, too, local action is countering negativity. I’ve written before about what a handsome and characterful town Darlington is, with an unusually rich independent retail and leisure offer. So, it’s frustrating, though understandable, when bad news like the closure of M&S or uncertainty over Binns’ future grabs the headlines instead.

Happily, new initiatives driven by local businesses, such as the impressive #LoveDarlo campaign online, and the packaging of the independent-driven Grange Road area as “The Imperial Quarter”, are fighting back.

Meanwhile, the wonderful Guru Boutique in Blackwellgate – trading in Darlington since 1972 – shows that no shop is too long-established to embrace the power of social media to grow its customer base.

So, though retail is hard right now, there are ways for businesses and places to help themselves. Often, the retailers that struggle are those that have lost sight of what their customers want in terms of quality, convenience or value. Meanwhile, businesses and towns that have a distinctive offer, dynamic leadership and canny marketing are in a strong position to thrive.

Graham Soult is the founder of North East-based retail consultancy CannyInsights.com, and a Fellow of the Institute of Place Management