Retail experts say Norwich city centre is thriving despite ‘disappointing’ vacancy figures
- Credit: Steve Adams
Retail bosses have rebuked suggestions that Norwich's shopping scene is withering despite new figures showing the amount of empty retail space in the city is rising.
The 2018 retail monitor, published by Norwich City Council, shows vacant floorspace in the city centre has risen from 5.8% in 2016 to 7.3% – however, the number of vacant units has decreased slightly to 10.8% – below the separately-calculated national average of 11.2%.
The report said primary retail zones in the city centre are faring 'reasonably well', but that the number of vacant units had risen dramatically in secondary areas and the outer reaches of the city centre.
Despite the gloomy picture, local retail experts have expressed confidence in Norwich, saying it is still a favoured location among national chains and supports a growing array of independents.
This year has brought unprecedented pressure for retailers with a fatal cocktail of rising costs, low consumer confidence and the continuing migration of shoppers to the internet.
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Names such as Toys R Us, Maplin, Mothercare and House of Fraser have suffered under the weight of these troubles, which have caused the closure of shops and collapse of chains.
One lifeline which could help high streets survive is the growing 'experience' economy: shops which offer customers more than just products and mixing retail units with cafes, bars and entertainment venues to encourage people to spend more time – and hopefully more money – with local stores.
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In the retail monitor the city council noted evidence to support this: a shift from A1 (retail) use to service and leisure uses in units in primary areas of the city centre.
Prof Joshua Bamfield, director of the Centre for Retail Research in Norwich, expects many high streets will begin shifting to the 'experience' economy.
'It is right to say that if you cannot fill the retail space you should use it for something else,' he said. 'The real area of spending increases is on experiences, travel, and leisure.'
Against the national backdrop of retail difficulties, Prof Bamfield said Norwich was performing 'pretty well'.
Commented on the specifics of the report, he said: 'Toys R Us is a store that could well stand empty for a few years because there is not a tenant who wants to take on a store like that – it would have to be divided. The saga at Anglia Square goes on, and another area of concern is Castle Mall, but they are right that the city centre is quite reasonable.'
According to Norwich Business Improvement District (BID), city centre footfall rose by 2% in 2017 and the rate of unoccupied buildings in its city centre catchment area was 4%, below the national average of 12%.
Stefan Gurney, the BID's executive director, echoed the belief that the Norwich retail scene was holding its own in an increasingly tough market.
'In comparison to national figures I think we sit in a good situation,' he said.
'We have seen companies start to rationalise their businesses at a national level. If they are looking to go from 50 stores to 30, Norwich would be one of the ones they keep and that is why our levels have decreased a lot less that the national level.
'I would look at the decrease in vacant units in the primary area. It has dropped from 14% in 2016 to 9.8% in 2018 – a shift of 5% in the number of units being utilised is a very high margin of uplift which I think reflects that we have a very strong retail scene, particularly the independent sector.'
Guy Gowing, managing partner at Norwich property consultancy Arnolds Keys, said the statistics were 'disappointing' but reflected multiple factors such as timing (for example measures being taken when shops had recently shut) and 'disruptive' changes to the road network.
'Others reflect deteriorating local centres, such as Bowthorpe, where the large Roys is the only real draw, with other retailers looking tired – this centre has been left to wither on the vine for too long, and needs a new marketing strategy to reinvent it.
'By contrast, some areas are performing well. Grove Road, for example has been fully occupied for some time, due to a good position, active management and accessible free parking,' he said.
Castle Mall was singled out in the report for its retail unit vacancy rate of 26%.
Centre manager Robert Bradley said in August that some units had been left 'strategically empty' – and weeks later plans were revealed for a new £2m leisure complex at the centre, set to open in summer 2019.
'In the midst' of a buzzing retail scene
Paige Mitchell, owner of lifestyle store Elm in Norwich, thinks the growing number of independent shops is helping to support Norwich's retail scene.
She moved her own business from Dove Street to Lower Goat Lane earlier this year.
'I think the fact that more shops are full, but those units are smaller reflects which businesses are operating in Norwich. A lot of them are smaller independents that don't necessarily want a huge space,' she said.
'The business rates and rent in the Lanes are relatively good as well, especially when compared to Chapelfield and closer to the market, and the spots around here tend to be smaller too.
'I do think being next to empty units would have a knock-on effect on other businesses. For example on Lower Goat Lane our footfall, our sales, everything has doubled. That's because we're in the midst of loads of other really great shops, which attract people to potter in and out of each shop.'
'Norwich has become a destination shopping city'
Norwich business Lisa Angel opened its second shop in Chapelfield this week, joining its premises in Lower Goat Lane.
Founder and director Lisa Angel said retail spaces in the areas of the city she now occupies seemed 'hard to come by'. 'Maybe it's a shift in where retail spaces are available,' she said.
'It's great to see so many successful independent stores in Norwich, it's become a real destination shopping city. It's good to see other independents like Elm next to us in Lower Goat Lane, and the city is great for food, restaurants and independent eateries too.'
Ms Angel suggested the city could use a street market to support independent traders and producers trying to make the first move into retail – an idea close to her heart, as her first retail break came with a stand in Chapelfield's dining terrace. She said: 'It would be great if there were more places to showcase these producers and independents starting out.'