Independents and experiences are route to high street success
IT’S no secret that Gloucester has seen turbulent times on the high street in 2019. As rates rise and consumer spending sinks in the city centre, the city’s gate streets are struggling to meet the demands of the current climate.
The high street crisis has hit cities across the UK, and nearly 30 shops have closed in Gloucester since 2000, eight in 2019 alone.
Businesses such as Patisserie Valerie, HMV and Hudson & Co Sports are just a few the city has lost this year.
However, several city businesses have managed to weather the shopping storm.
Jason Smith, chief executive of Marketing Gloucester said that the recent dip in footfall is mostly due to imminent renovations.
He said: “Overall city footfall figures are up on 2018, but that takes into account a big rise in footfall at Gloucester Quays and on Southgate Street.
“Footfall is slightly down in Eastgate Street and King’s Walk due to the refurbishment.
“Last year across the city visitor numbers rose by four per cent which is testimony to the growth of the city as a visitor destination and the effects of the regeneration.”
An application to the UK government’s Future High Streets Fund in May 2019 by Gloucester City Council explained that the high streets seem to be floundering because of a lack of variety, too many units over too wide an area and not enough independents.
Although the application was not successful, Councillor Paul James, who led the bid, has played a key role in the refurbishment of Gloucester’s High Street, including the King’s Square renovation.
He said: “Because of the internet, the high street is not just about shopping any more. To draw people into the city, we have to make it an experience.
“Town centres and city centres should be community hubs, not just retail hubs.”
Mr James, inset, saw the solutions after visiting Roeselare, in Belgium, which “re-energised” its high street after a “massive” slump.
He said the council is trying to mimic this success with measures such as fines for litter, events such as the History Festival and good value parking.
Although he realised that rent in the city centre was tough on shopkeepers, he said the council tries to help businesses with “small reliefs”.
“The council has taken an active role in promoting the evolution of the city centre including regenerating our main shopping centre in partnership with the private sector.
“I envy the powers of our counterparts in Europe. In Roeselare they fine landlords for having long-term empty properties but sweeten the pill with grants for new businesses.
“In the UK some landlords get hit with empty rates bills while others in listed buildings don’t, giving them little incentive to bring them back into use.”
Mr James also acknowledged that Gloucester is in competition with places such as Cheltenham and Worcester.
He said: “We have to level the playing field. But that doesn’t mean making Gloucester the same as Cheltenham.”
He cited events such as Gloucester Goes Retro as a way for the city’s high street to show how vibrant it can be.
Gloucester Antiques has been in the city for nearly 40 years. Director Mick Cant thinks the shop has been around so long because there is continual demand for a unique item.
He said: “The price of most collectables is slashed on the internet so the things you’d pay £60 for 15 years ago cost £15-£20 today.”
Although the antiques market faces these challenges, Mr Cant said that its customer base has remained largely the same over the years: “Children are still involved in coin collecting and that is growing. Records and comics bought by younger people keep the market engaged.
“Scrolling down a screen doesn’t compare to picking up and touching [an object].
“I hope that this will lead Gloucester Antiques into the future.”
Mark Cooke, chef and co-owner of Cookes Cafe on Westgate Street, has been in Gloucester for four years. He said the high street is going through a “regeneration”.
“We are quite hard on ourselves [in Gloucester],” he said. “People moan when they see another coffee shop, or another pound shop.
“I think it’s great that we’re community-minded here - we need cafes to meet up, chat and communicate.”
But how do independent businesses find a place on the high street with competition from chain stores?
Mr Cooke says: “Retail in Gloucester has to celebrate individuality . We try to selling something that the big boys don’t.
“We can afford to sell the latest vegan stuff right away whereas the chains have to wait. You have to come into town to buy that bespoke item that you can’t get anywhere else.”
The shoe retailer AG Meek has been on Gloucester’s Westgate Street for 54 years. Shoe repairman Dean Jones said that the shop’s products go beyond the chain brands and cheap websites, with wedding guests proving a big clientele for his matching shoes and bags.
But Mr Jones said: “The rates are expensive in town, the building premises are too much to rent. [New high street businesses] set up shop but have to close because the rates go up every year.” However, he has seen sustained enthusiasm for local businesses in the high street that keep places like AG Meeks afloat: “People bring their shoes to be repaired here instead of going to chains because they want to support independents.”
Thousands of people pour into the city centre to see events like the last month’s Gloucester Goes Retro festival.