TTL has had a few initiatives over the years encouraging people to shop locally and this year we were involved in a shop locally Christmas poster campaign. This campaign recognised that we need to give our custom to local shops if they are to survive. Letchworth’s Business Improvement District (BID) has funded a number of initiatives in the last year to try and get people into the town centre and visiting the shops. Did you try to shop locally at Christmas and was this successful?  What kinds of things could you buy and what were you less successful in finding? If you did shop locally has your Christmas shopping experience had a knock on effect on where you shop?

Letchworth is in no way unique in its struggle to build a vibrant town centre where the shops are successful businesses. Discussions over how to address failing high streets is a common topic for media debate. Now that Christmas is over we see shops closing, for Letchworth our latest most visible losses have been the toy shop and the school uniform shop. So why were these shops unable to thrive in Letchworth?

Let’s start by thinking about the toy shop, now that it has gone we have the following options for buying a toy; Argos, the supermarkets, the bargain stores, other towns (most probably visiting one of the out of town toy stores) and on-line. With children of junior school age I am increasingly aware of how much of their entertainment comes from the different apps that download onto the various electronic devices. The games and activities of my childhood have very little interest for my children. So changes in demand also affect the viability of toy stores. What sort of toys do you buy and where do they come from?

Thinking now about the uniform shop, I have to buy my children’s uniform, with the school logo on, from an online shop that has a relationship with the school and I can wait weeks for its arrival. The quality is not great and the cuffs wear out before the uniform is outgrown, but one presumes that school gets a benefit from the deal. The uniform shop also provided non-logo school apparel, but these garments can be bought cheaply in supermarkets. Parents do get frustrated by the quality of the uniform we have to buy online, the slowness of delivery and the fact we cannot try the uniform for size, but this feedback has not had sufficient influence to save the uniform shop. It would be interesting to know other parents experiences of school uniform. Who sells the best quality, hardest wearing, uniform products? Could school badges to sew on give parents more buying options than current uniforms which include lots of products with printed and embroidered logos?

The new retail area just outside Biggleswade is drawing in customers, its our nearest big Marks and Spencer store and it has a few other ‘big draw’ stores. We see a pattern of retailers setting up a ‘Big Store’ that has little competition in an area so it can draw customers from a distance, alongside small stores (often food stores) which provide a, postage free, on-line shopping collection point. The medium sized stores that used to be in most town centres have gone. Do you think this trend is inevitable and we need to consider the town centre in the light of this change?

What is clear is our town centre is being affected by a change in both what we buy and how we buy it. The widening offer of goods in supermarkets, the ease of online shopping, the growth of out-of-town shopping centres and the change in what interests us as consumers has all affected our retail habits.

Entrepreneurs have been left to think up ideas for businesses, rent some premises and see how it goes. We have seen quite a few failures over the years. What we also have seen is that within a short period of time a number of people all with very similar products can be opening up shops. Where one or two shops might have survived, the opening of too many shops with the same product range leads to each shop providing for just a small proportion of the local demand and there is a tendency for them all to struggle and close. Are pop up shops a good idea or when they compete against existing shops’ products can they lead to the loss of what should have been successful long-term businesses? Do pop-up shops lead to the loss of vital Christmas sales for established businesses? Remember the bag shops that opened up across Letchworth town centre and now they are gone. Coffee shops and restaurants are the latest phenomena and it will be interesting to see how they all do. What do you think about the way shops have been opening and closing at great speed?  To you, is it just the tough world of commerce or should there be some planning?

With empty shops and shops that are not always open, the incentive to explore the whole of our town centre is reduced. A post office on the periphery does not bring trade into the town centre. Is our town centre too big and would shops thrive better if they were closer together? What was right for the turn of the last century is not necessarily right for todays world. We desperately need housing but we clearly are not desperate for the number of shops we have. It seems a good time to review the appropriate size of our town centre.

So where next? Campaigns to encourage people into the town centre alone are not going to give us a thriving town centre with resilient businesses. Waiting for entrepreneurs to miraculously produce the right mix of shops to get people regularly into the town centre is also not working. On the optimistic side we know that shops like Iceland and Home Bargains are well utilised and keep some footfall so there is hope (interestingly both of these shops have recently opened shops on the industrial estate). It seems the right time for the people of the town to assist in some strategic thinking and share their thoughts about what they want from their town centre.

Add your ideas to this blog. TTL would like to contribute ideas for the town centre into a Neighbourhood Plan. Let’s have yours!


Christmas Shopping In Letchworth and beyond… — 11 Comments

  1. it certainly is a complex problem. I can’t remember how I shopped at Christmas but i always try locally first and I’m not a regular on-line shopper so i do value local shops. I never did understand why Brookers left us. It is still thriving in Hitchin so why not here? And I can’t understand why the Arcade fails to keep all the shops open. One or two have managed to cling on. It can’t be lack of footfall with the bus stop being at one end and town at the other. I suspect high rents has a lot to do with it.

  2. The question of high rents is always mentioned by shop owners and the HF claims the rents are similar to Hitchin. The point they don’t think about is that Hitchin is a more thriving commercial environment and hence the high rents can be supported whreas in letchworth they result in shops folding. Obvious to my way of thinking….tell me I’m wrong, someone!

  3. It’s a very sad fact that “brands” are enormously powerful, so even many of our restaurants and eateries are national or international chains. I was really upset when our local, locally owned, convenience store became a Tesco Express. I don’t know what to do about that.
    Several places have introduced a local currency to keep money flowing locally rather than out into international share-holders. One of those is Bristol, but my brother, who was until his recent retirement an accountant for small business, has never seen one!
    I suspect we do need a smaller town centre; and some sort of planning so that we don’t get e.g. two micro-breweries in such a short time. I hope they both survive, but I doubt it, especially when all our pubs are run by national chains.

  4. The further you go from Leys square and Eastcheap the lower the rents that can be negotiated but the less footfall your shop will have. Its a dilemma for new shops to decide what a better position is worth. There is also the problem that shops that located in better times are now left with high rents. If new shops are allowed next door for a much lower rent this can cause resentment from existing shop owners, especially if they are struggling. The question for the organisations that own the shops is could lower rents lead to more shops being filled and overall more money or would they just loose out by adjusting the rents downwards. Of course it could be that as town centre shopping is less popular that the number of shops considered to be in a prime position has reduced and so a review of the rental value of shops needs to reflect this. In a free market rent would be set where demand and supply balance and clearly with the number of empty retail units this is not happening. A period of lower rents would help to show if this can boost demand, but if the demand is not very elastic you could still end up with empty shops. If that is the case the message would seem to be that the town centre is too big.

    • Shopkeepers at the bottom of Leys Avenue and Station Road will tell you that they resent paying extra money to BID for little or no return.

  5. Sometime ago I spoke to a clothes retailer in Stevenage who said he had wanted to come to Letchworth but the rent was so high it was impossible for him to make a reasonable living. Charity shops and restaurants seem to be the only survivors but for how long. Surely all the restaurants we now have will not be able to survive.
    I realise the footfall is not big enough for any large retailer but it would be great to have some small individual shops to make a bigger variety of shops and in order to do this the rents would have to be lower. If every shop had lower rents would it not be better if they were all filled at a lower rent rather than so many empty?

  6. More shops at lower rents would increase the variety which in turn would surely increaase the footfall.
    Letchworth can’t hope to compete with larger towns on their terms, but could provide a viable alternative model, with a more local and relaxed feel.

  7. It might help if shop rents could be charged at a (affordable) percentage of turnover, maybe starting off with a low rent in the first year for small independent businesses and then increasing as turnover increases. I don’t know how it works now but I assume that rents are ‘fixed’.
    (I live in Hitchin and although I would agree that it is a bit easier for independent businesses here we have lost quite a few to chains e.g. the bookshop and coffee shop on the market square).

  8. The traditional town centre has had it’s day, i’m afraid, for two reasons. 1/. The internet ( we did virtually all our Christmas shopping on line and we’re in our late sixties) and 2/. Parking ( why should we struggle to find a parking space,which usually costs, when we can park free at a local supermarket and have a better choice of produce at a lesser price?)

  9. I am also of the opinion that the town centre is too big. Mind you, I do like the mini-breweries as the ‘nationals’ are not so great.
    I did all my Christmas meat, veg and grocery shopping in town and was not disappointed.
    I like to think of Letchworth as an unique sort of place and I would support more ‘unique shops’ but I am well aware of their financial constraints

  10. For a while some shops have survived by also having an online presence, I believe this was the case for some of the shops in the arcade. However, online competition is fierce and to succeed various IT skills are clearly useful. Additionally, if this proves profitable then why have the expense of a shop. Ebay purchases are often dispatched outside working hours suggesting that many competitors have this as a second business probably run from home so few overheads. There are some products where we like to see before we purchase, clothes, shoes, furniture and furnishing come to mind. Suspect we have become less bothered about seeing electronic gadgets before we buy, with the exception of phones and computers where we care about the user interface. If the supplier of goods to our shops also supplies or even owns an on-line retail outlet which is undercutting what shops sell for, then shops end up being free showrooms for other businesses. How many times have you found you can get a product cheaper online but have used a shop to check out the product quality? If your income is tight price is going to influence how you buy. This suggests to me that shops which have at least some unique products may stand a better chance of success. This may be why the micro-breweries may succeed, especially if they can get some of their products bottled at times like Christmas when you are looking for small gifts that will not fill up people’s houses for ever more. Mock turtle is a nice example of a shop that has something a bit different and a bit special and is well worth a look around. Annie’s provide luxury chocolates and sweets that we cannot find in the supermarkets.

    Other shops seem to survive by providing something extra, David’s is a hub for lots of community initiatives which brings us into the shop, and runs its events with authors. One of the longest surviving shops on the wynd is Garden City Crafts that also runs workshops. I believe Alice’s wonderland in the arcade have run workshops and groups to help people learn to knit. On the Isle of Arran we went into the shop selling the island aromatic products and could pay for the children to make their own soap. We stayed a while while the children had fun and I bought whilst the children were entertained. Are the supermarkets places we go to shop quickly and could the town centre be a place where we can buy products but also some kind of service / entertainment. Sitting in a coffee shop appeals to some but not all. Quiz nights work for pubs so what could help get customers in the coffee shops, a scrabble morning, a ball pit in the corner for toddlers? What do others think the lessons are for what shops could survive..