BBC BLOGS - West Country Cash

Archives for December 2010

Tears and Tesco: the changing face of the High St

Dave Harvey | 17:43 UK time, Sunday, 5 December 2010

Why do people cry when they close down a shop?
Is it a business, or a love affair?


Shop to let in Bridgwater

Colin Zabel has not gone bust. He has not lost his home. His two shop assistants have both found new jobs. But as he packs up the last of the stock from his chemist and general store in Swindon's old town, he can't hold back the tears.

"It's much more than a business," he explains, wiping an eye, "it's a way of life."


Colin Zabel has just closed down his shop in Swindon's Old Town


Mr Zabel has been on Wood Street for 14 years and now the lease has expired. These things are complicated, as ever, but suffice to say the shopkeeper and his landlord have parted company. He is already looking for new premises, and a new enterprise.

"Shopkeepers will be okay," he says, "but the community is left with an empty shop. Or worse, yet another restaurant."

He tells me that many of his regulars are old, infirm, disabled. A short nip down the road to pick up some new buttons and a ball of wool is what they want. And they get a friendly chat into the bargain. "If we ran this place on purely commercial lines, we'd have gone bust years ago."

Signs in Colin Zabel's closing down sale

When Colin leaves, it's likely that TopDrug will become part of the next door curry restaurant. And that, it turns out, is typical.

In the first six months of 2010, 519 new restaurants, takeaways or pubs opened in the South West. That's more than one in four of all new openings on our high streets. There's more on the new analysis here.

The research by the Local Data Company was commissioned for BBC One's regional current affairs series Inside Out. You can see my take on it in the West Country edition at 7:30pm on Monday, 6 December, but there are similar reports in all of the English Regions reflecting what's happening on local High Streets. You can also watch on the BBC iPlayer.

The "death of the high street" is a frequently reported tragedy. But, to quote Mark Twain, its death has been rather exaggerated. I've been inspecting the health of local shopping streets across the West Country, and I found something rather surprising.

They've not died. They've just changed. In fact, they've never stopped changing.

Out go multiple chain retailers, especially of clothing and electricals. In come cafes, delis, hairdressers, nail bars. In a word: services.

Round the corner from Mr Zabel's TopDrug is a road that provides TV cameras with the desired images of "recession Britain". On Victoria Road I counted 25 units. Nine are empty, in fact derelict. Look at them.

But who is trading well here? Five restaurants and four hair and beauty salons.
An accountant, a thriving dentist, a man who engraves gravestones. Services.

There are only two true retailers, who actually sell things, but in fact they are really services too. Ann Farthing's lovely antique shop and Wiltshire Rod & Gun, a mecca for field sports from across the county. In both, you buy expertise, personal service, and a nice chat.

I found the same picture everywhere. It is most striking in Frome, a cornucopia of independent shops. Of 275 stores in Frome, only 40 are multiples.

"These people have realised you don't compete with the multiples, you provide something different," explains retail analyst Mike McElhinney of King Sturge.

There are unique fashion designers, I count four haberdasheries, two hand made cosmetics boutiques, several second hand bookstores and countless jewellers.

"They have passion, creativity, flair," says Mr McElhinney. "They are running shops the multiples could never open."

Back in Swindon, Colin Zabel is still tearful.
"When Wood Street is the street of bars, where will the old people go then?" he laments.

They say you shouldn't argue with the dead, so it seems wrong to question a man who is shutting up shop. But right next door I pop into a hardware store, run by an enthusiastic chap who says times are tough, but perfectly profitable.

As we chat, a woman comes in with a long face. Her oven has gone on the blink.
"Its flashing red, says 'change filter', and I didn't even know it had a filter," she tells him. In a flash, her local ironmonger has identified the make of oven and whipped out the right filter from a mysterious box behind the counter.

"A fiver for that, if you would. Come back if you get stuck fitting it!"

Everyone has a local shopping street. And everyone has an opinion on whether it is going to the dogs, being ruined by out of town superstores, or actually becoming rather pleasant.

What's it like round your way?

Burger Bars and Barber Shops: The future of our High Streets

Dave Harvey | 17:52 UK time, Thursday, 2 December 2010

I'm walking down the Fishponds Rd in Bristol, just by Lodge Causeway. If you're feeling hungry, there are plenty of takeaways.

Kebab shop on Fishponds Road, Bristol

Six in fact, out of 33 shops.

But buy your own food? Some fresh chicken, a bag of spuds and some broccoli? Forget it. The old greengrocers has gone, replaced by the "Family Kebab House". There was a bakery too once, long gone now.

What's happened to our local High Streets?

As luck would have it, I've got the just the man with me. Ned Cussen grew up round here, and now trades shops for one of Bristol's busiest agencies, King Sturge.
"Neighbourhood shopping like this has been most affected," he tells me.


Ned Cussen, Property Expert

"And this street is typical: takeaways, hair dressers, service industries. It's actually a fairly narrow range of businesses that can still work in shops like that."

And look at that. Right next door is a hairdressers, "New Look" Indian style threading and beauticians. In fact, there are eight different ways to get your hair done here, all the way through to Remo's Turkish Shaves.

"It's quite simple," Ned points out, "you can't get your hair cut on the internet."

That, of course, is the threat. This weekend is reputed to be a frenzy of online Christmas shopping. Real shopkeepers, hoping their customers will brave the freezing weather, expect the worst. Out of town centres and big malls are the other, much documented, threat. Some say our local High Streets are in terminal decline.

"Well, step in here," suggests Ned with a smile.

He takes me into a sport shop, started in the sixties by Bristol Rovers star Doug Hillard. Doug was Ned's boyhood hero, "a Doug Hillard free kick was a wonder to behold," he smiles.

Inside, we meet Doug's widow, Janet. They've survived four decades of retail revolutions. And as we look round, it is clear why.

Janet Hillard

You can buy a single stud. Trophies with your friendly league club logo embossed on them. They'll even embroider or print team strips.

"Most sports shops are actually selling fashion, when you look at them," Ned explains. "The big ones at the malls, they might do you a Manchester United shirt, but not Mangotsfield United like you can get here!"

In fact, Doug Hillard's shop is now a service business too. They're selling expertise, attention to detail, and printed caps.

Wander down your local high street, and play the game. Count the number of shops selling things. Then count the service firms. And I bet the shops that are surviving are really selling a service too.

On Monday we'll get some new research analysing which shops are closing, which are opening, and where. I wonder if Ned and I are on the money here?

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