Battle to save resort high street

Bank Hey Street in Blackpool town centre
Bank Hey Street in Blackpool town centre
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Blackpool town centre is faring among the worst in the North West – with twice as many businesses closing as opening in the past 12 months.

Figures compiled by the Local Data Company for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) make worrying reading for the resort.

The research shows 205 businesses operating in the town centre in January this year, down from 216 in January 2017.

While 11 new ventures have opened, 22 have closed down.

The net change of minus 11 puts Blackpool second behind Manchester in the table of worst performing town centres in the North West, with Chester and Liverpool the third and fourth worst performing shopping areas.

Internet buying is blamed for the shift in many people’s shopping habits with clicking online more convenient than hopping in the car to visit bricks and mortar stores.

Town hall chiefs say Blackpool is experiencing the same pressures are other retail centres.

Coun Mark Smith, cabinet member for regeneration and economic development, said: “The towns and cities in the North West that have all lost retail over the last year includes most of the regional retail destinations such as Liverpool and Manchester.

“The average loss of stores is around 10 per cent so it appears all areas have been impacted by retail loss which is more down to changes in retail trends than specific locations.

“Blackpool itself has seen growth in the last few months with several independent retailers opening in the town centre, and the town will see the development of a further extension to the Houndshill later this year which is extremely positive.”

A spokesman for Houndshill said the centre currently has two vacant units out of 65 compared to six in 2016.

Michael Williams, chairman of Blackpool BID (Business Improvement District), said a number of factors were affecting town centre retail occupancy levels.

He added: “There has been a noticeable change in culture towards enjoying experiences rather than spending time shopping.

“Families are trying to make the most of their time doing something together or with friends and often on a tight budget.

“The social media culture and the ease of internet shopping have also affected the high street not only in Blackpool but across the UK.

“Inflation is also a cost pressure that retailers face and the impact of the national minimum wage and new national living wage is pushing up retailers payroll costs.”

However there are still new businesses opening, and planning permissions have been granted in the last month for eateries in Church Street and Bank Hey Street.

Among those with confidence to invest in Blackpool town centre is Keely Stratton who opened Drizzy’s Desserts on Central Promenade just before Easter.

She said: “I do agree a lot of people shop online now, in fact I do myself.

“I think the generation we live in now is very much involved in internet and social media.

“So we wanted our business to be a cool place to visit with your friends as this age group is into instagram and checking into places to show where they are.

“But we also get middle-aged people coming in for a coffee and a cake.

“Everything is based around the internet so it is harder for shops but everyone still loves to eat out.”

Zelf Hussain, restructuring partner at PwC, said the first half of 2018 had been one of the toughest first quarters of the year.

He added: “We’ve seen some well known names impacted as they face a perfect storm of issues - a fall in consumer confidence and reduced spending alongside a number of cost headwinds.

“Many retailers are using restructuring tools as a way to resize their store numbers.

“Survivors and thrivers will be those who address their cost issues and have a compelling ‘bricks + clicks’ offering to help them meet changing consumer trends and compete with online retailers who don’t have the same legacy cost issues.”

But ‘leafy’ Lytham fares much better

But Fylde’s shopping centres are bucking the trend.

Lytham and St Annes has topped the chart in the survey.

Shop openings in Fylde were more than six per cent per cent ahead of closures – one of only two positive figures from 29 shopping centres analysed across the North West,

The analysis by auditors Price Waterhouse Coopers in association with the Local Data Company found that in 2017, 340 shops opened and 515 closed across the North West, a 25 per cent increase in the number of closures compared to 2016.

The only other one in the region to show positive balance in 2017 was Altrincham with a positive change of 2.29 per cent.

The survey brackets Lytham and St Annes together as one place, with no distinction between the two separate town centres – and traders’ representatives were united in welcoming the figures.

Denize Ashton, chairman of the Lytham Business Partnership, said: “We are delighted with these figures which indicate that Lytham and St Annes are actually doing great.

“There are lots of new businesses opening up pretty much month on month and very few empty units.

“This gives us huge confidence in the town and its future.

“But we have to ensure we don’t take the pressure off, getting the message out about the importance of shopping small and shopping local.

“Although it’s good to have a large visitor population, it is also supportive if more locals would do their shopping in town.

“There really is everything you need – from onions to an actual oven and everything in between – right here.

“We also have some incredible businesses that use every method to attract people to the area, and that has to be a bonus for everyone.

“I also think some savvy businesses have diversified to give customers what they want – with competition from the internet out-of-town centres, you cannot just ‘rest on your laurels’.”

Denize had particular praise for the St Annes Enterprise Partnership (STEP) for their efforts in promoting business in their town,’.

STEP spokesman Aileen Ames said: “These figures prove that despite local concern about a ‘dying high street’ trade, driven in part by the continued closure of JR Taylor’s premises, things are actually really positive for our local high street.

“This may be in part due to our two town centres being only three miles apart, generating some friendly rivalry to entice locals and visitors to spend in their outlets.”

“Judging by the figures, it appears that businesses are optimistic that there are more than enough customers to go round.

“The Ricoh Women’s British Open golf championships, taking place this summer, will no doubt reignite the debate on the coverage ‘Royal Lytham’ rather than ‘Royal Lytham and St Annes’, but with the publicity and trade it will generate for the area it will bring yet another boost to our town.

“As many coastal communities continue to struggle, it is fantastic to see our area bucking the trend.

“We at STEP work hard to support local businesses and our community, providing advice, support, events, promotions and a forum to work together to make St Annes the best that it can be for everyone.”

Town’s retail casualties

Here in Blackpool casualties over recent years include BHS, Ethel Austin and Burton’s menswear on Church Street.

The Prezzo restaurant on Church Street is due to close on Saturday, while Argos has been absorbed into Sainsbury’s from its location on Albert Road.

Even the council has struggled to let its units on the ground floor of Bickerstaffe House on Cookson Street.