Fuel hikes spark golden era ahead for Norfolk’s local shops

Soaring fuel prices are ushering in a golden era for village stores and market towns across the region as customers cut down on long drives to do their shopping.

A new national survey shows that the pain of paying more pounds at the pump means a third of motorists are buying more from local shops.

Locally, retail bosses say they have spotted the same trend, and that the silver lining of the fuel price cloud could be a boom time for community traders - but only if they listen to customers and provide what they want.

Research from Santander Credit Cards says three quarters of all the nation's drivers - some 29 million people - are using their cars less, with two thirds of them blaming the rocketing cost of motoring as a tank full for a family car now rings up �70 at the till.

Nearly half were only doing essential journeys, with 29 per cent buying more from local shops, and 12 per cent staying closer to home to drink and dine. Three million motorists also said they were looking for jobs nearer to where they lived.

Santander Cards director Rob Holt said: 'Motorists have reached their tipping point, and after years of fuel price hikes are using their cars less and less. Many are turning to their local communities and the internet instead.'

The AA confirmed the trend with spokesman Luke Bosdet saying the motoring organisation regularly tracked petrol buying habits and two thirds of customers were cutting back on car use or other spending.

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'There is a big change going on. People are visiting petrol stations less, but spending more per trip. Fuel retailers are having to adapt to stop going under, and looking at themselves as corner shops too.'

The same applied to village stores and market towns, which could profit from the change of spending habits, if they also responded to customer demand, said Jason Middleton from Shaping Norfolk's Future, the partnership seeking to boost the county's economy and employment.

'This is a golden opportunity for village shops and market towns.

'Those who are forward-thinking, understand their customers and respond will survive and thrive. Those who don't listen will decline.

'We won't go back to the 1920s and 30s heydays, but we are returning to good old fashioned village shops and market towns.'

Traders should also try to gauge the wishes of people who were not currently customers through local surveys and newsletters.

Local shops champion Nigel Dowdney, who has shops in Norwich and Stalham, also agreed with the trend analysis, saying: 'We have experienced at first hand people being more careful with their money over the past 18 months. Since petrol went up recently even more have been coming in.

'They are not driving to big superstores but using small shops instead. It has caused us to look at how we run our own business and the ranges we stock because of demand for a wider range of products.

'People are realising it is good to shop locally and support local businesses, and independent stores can react more quickly to customer needs than multiple chains,' added Mr Dowdney who is chairman of the Buy Local group which represents nearly 100 truly local shops and encourages their use.

Holt retailer Michael Baker, who runs the Bakers and Larners department store and the town's Budgens supermarket, reported higher footfall in the supermarket as 'people realise it costs money to drive to Tesco or Morrisons at Cromer or Fakenham.'

And Sheringham chamber of trade secretary Andy Bullen said 'it is having an impact and will continue to do so in the future' throwing a question mark over whether the planned new Tesco store in the town would attract the number of outlying customers it initially hoped for .

Dereham shopping centre manager Nigel Sizeland said: "I think the survey is true. People like coming to Dereham anyway and given the present climate, rather than going to places like King's Lynn or Norwich, they will choose Dereham.

"People like the free car parking and ease of movement around the town. Some days we do not have enough parking spaces and Friday was one of those days."

At Great Yarmouth, town centre manager Jonathan Newman said there had been a 10 per cent increase in footfall since Easter, but 'people are not telling me it is due to petrol price rises.'

Jenna Cox, a spokesman for Diss Business Forum, said rising fuel prices could be a contributory factor making people want to shop more locally, but she had not heard of any evidence specifically linking the cost with increased footfall.

She said towns still needed to provide quality independent shops and businesses to ensure residents keep heading to their local high streets.

'I suppose people would think about travelling more because of the price of petrol but at the end of the day if there's nothing that makes them want to stay then they'll probably go anyway,' she said.

In Norwich Roger Pemberton chairman of the Lanes Traders said it was a 'mixed picture' with any benefit of people not going further afield to shop 'countered by the overall availability of cash' but the city was hoping it would also gain with local people on staycations looking to remain and shop rather than travel away.

The latest survey comes shortly after the Office of National Statistics also highlighted a slight March retail sales rise with figures also confirming that people were shunning out-of-town malls and supermarkets in favour of local shopping .

Norfolk Chamber of Commerce chief executive Caroline Williams commented: 'It is no surprise that people are saving money by shopping closer to home in the face of increasing fuel costs. This is great news for smaller market towns where independent shops struggle against the larger outlets and supermarkets.'