Special report – Call to support the high street as store openings fall to lowest level for seven years
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Retail leaders have called on shoppers to head out and support the region's high streets amid challenging times for the industry.
While there have been warnings of the 'days of small businesses being numbered' there is also hope that independent shops can still find a place.
The East of England has been one of the hardest hit regions with a net loss of 184 stores in 2017 and the second-highest rate of closures in the country, according to research by The Local Data Company (LDC) for PwC.
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The figures come amid challenging times for the high street, where the rise in competition from online retailers has met with a perfect storm of rising costs with business rates and wage bills increasing for many.
This year has already seen the collapse of Toys R Us and Maplin as well as several chains announcing restructures of their estates including New Look, Prezzo and, yesterday, Carpetright.
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Against this backdrop store openings across Britain have fallen to their lowest level in seven years.
Duncan Adams, owner of Dunx Cycles in Lowestoft, said when his firm became VAT registered it 'became unviable overnight'. He said: 'The days of the small business are very numbered now, they are closing all over the place.
'We don't have the buying power that the giant companies have. It is not going to change any time soon because people are using shops now to see what they want and then going home to buy it cheaper online.'
Eric Kirk, chairman of the Magdalen Street and Anglia Square Traders Association, said customers should support their local retailers, not just because they could better tell the quality of a product in person, but because of the social and economic benefits as well.
He said: 'It is a difficult time and people are definitely being a little more cautious with their spending.
'It has not been helped by massive variations in the weather which makes it harder for retailers to forecast what they might sell.
'While some of the bigger retailers have not had a great time some independents have been able to fill in the gaps because they are more flexible.'
According to the LDC research, estate agents, travel agents and recruitment agencies were among the worst affected sectors, while perhaps surprisingly a traditional retail sector, bookshops, was bucking the trend.
While the online market has been one of the biggest changes for the sector a desire from customers, particularly the millennial demographic, for experiences could mean there is still room for bricks-and-mortar shops, according to the research.
One of the major strains on businesses has been the changes to rates with a revaluation in April last year, the first since 2010, bringing increased costs for many.
Adrian Fennell, partner in the retail department at Roche Chartered Surveyors, said: 'We have been through a seismic change in the last four months in terms of retail [restructures] and the market is moving extremely quickly.
'The biggest problem has been business rates in a lot of places, like Great Yarmouth, which are killing retail – and that's before rent.'
Overall, the number of new high street stores opening in 2017 fell to 4,083, from 4,534 in 2016, with the second half of the year seeing substantially more closures and fewer openings than the first six months.
Stefan Gurney, executive director of Norwich Business Improvement District (BID), said he thought the city was in a better position than most with footfall up 1% while the country as a whole had seen a decline.
Great Yarmouth town centre manager Jonathan Newman said empty shops had remained pretty much static in the town at 15% over the last year but he said there had been a churn of independent retailers.
'A lot of those big multiples are not present in Great Yarmouth and our former BHS store should be opening as a Poundstretcher in the next couple of weeks which will be a boost,' he said.
John Sexton, owner of Sweet Memories and chairman of Beccles Business and Tourism Association, said: 'We have hardly any empty units but the general consensus among the independent shop owners is that times are very tough.
'The high street is evolving – there are now more coffee shops than there are pubs.
'For me personally business is not what it used to be and talking to people around the town it seems to be the same.'
The Business view
Donna Lee, Hot Rocks steak and seafood restaurant owner in Cromer, said: 'We are fairly new and we use social media, but the biggest challenge is just getting your name out there.
'What we've done successfully. I think, is that people know we are doing something different and that we trying to appeal to people. We already have a lot of repeat customers and local trade is good.'
Roy Brame has owned Cobra Domestic Appliances in Thetford for 40 years.
He said the biggest challenge to his business is the perception that the high street is expensive.
'People see my prices and they see the internet prices and think the shop is expensive. But they don't ask what I do for my price. I deliver, I take the old appliance away and I connect the new one.'
Mr Brame said he is confident he can remain in Whitehart Street for another 40 years if he and his staff continue to 'do it for the people'.
Newsagent Dereham News has been in the community for 36 years. Manager Mark Stubbs said: 'Business rates and rent are the biggest challenges, along with running costs such as electricity. Those costs are getting tougher and tougher.
'I think the costs are horrendous especially for anyone trying to start a business and unfortunately that puts people off.
'We haven't done anything significant to be successful other than we just do what we always do and make sure it is to best of our ability. We deliver newspapers to wide range of customers and it is guaranteed income for us.'
Gallery coordinator Kathy Cossins at Greyfriars Art Space said footfall has been the biggest reason for shop closures in St James Street, King's Lynn.
She said that particular area of town suffers from low numbers of customers as many opt for the High Street.
She added: 'We have to really sell ourselves, it's the footfall you really have to push at.
'We have to use many advertisements and simply word of mouth.'