Bury St Edmunds shop owners respond to PricewaterhouseCoopers research
It can be a challenge to not be pessimistic about UK high streets.
According to latest figures, 2,481 shops, banks and other businesses disappeared from 500 UK town centres last year. PricewaterhouseCoopers found this was a 40 per cent rise in closures from 2017.
But research also found five retail categories have shown increases: Gyms, cake shops, ice cream parlours, bookshops and vape/ecigarette shops.
In our latest Love Local feature, a series focusing on what can be done to support local businesses in Bury St Edmunds, we spoke to five businesses to find out the secrets to their success.
Business working out
Ann Bissett works at Moreton Hall Health Club in Bury St Edmunds and is sad to see shops closing, even if gyms are not. “Retailers are closing because people are getting all their shopping done in one place, or doing it online,” she said.
“I do not like online shopping, but if it continues at the current rate I think shops will continue to close.” She is also not surprised to hear gyms are widely growing in popularity. This, she believes, could be down to a greater awareness of health benefits and young people having more free time.
“We are varied in our age groups and the type of person who comes. We cater for everyone, but I think some newer gyms target young people and some customers talk about the music played.
“When I was 20 I would never have gone to the gym. But young people are starting families later now, are more independent and aware of the benefits of healthy living.”
Dough on the rise
Despite not having a shopfront in Bury, Wooster’s Bakery is a well-known name in the town centre thanks to its presence in the town’s market. It also trades online and supplies local hotels.
Founder Will Wooster has noticed a demand for high-end cake shops and bakeries, which he puts down to product quality and customer interaction.
“People want to spend their money on a good product, and are often looking for something a bit different like sourdough,” he said.
“There is more awareness of food now and greater access. But I think the internet would have had the high street dead and buried years ago if it was not for customer interaction. We have a presence in the busy town centre, we have been able to gain trust. People know you are genuine when they have had that face to face interaction.”
Criterion Ices has been making ice cream since 1920, but the Thurston-based company has recently profited from a trend of ice cream parlours opening. Charlie Myatt, sales and marketing director, said their products are now stocked in several parlour-type eateries around Bury. “People are looking at different ways to eat,” he said.
“I know the bubble has burst with (mid-level) restaurant chains. Customers are looking to enjoy eating, going out, but without spending a fortune. It was the way with coffee shops for a bit.”
He said younger people, perhaps with less money to spend at traditional restaurants, having been using ice cream parlours as hang-outs.
“People like the indulgence,” Charlie added. “They can feel like treating themselves. A few years ago supermarkets hurt town centres by stocking all these products. But Bury St Edmunds has always been a great town and independent shops have become its identity. Now supermarkets are having to work hard to keep us engaged. There is more desire for people to shop locally, customers don’t mind if they have to pay a little more if they feel a responsibility to support local businesses.”
Read all about it
Bury is fortunate enough to have two Waterstones shops which according to Valda Fisher, manager of the branch in Butter Market, sells customers not just books, but dreams. She said: “It is a nice place to come because it is friendly and welcoming. The customer service aspect is important. Here someone might come in and say ‘please may I have the new Tom Clancy’. You wouldn’t go into a supermarket and ask for a loaf of bread in the same way. We know people by name here.”
Tucked away upstairs is a cafe, where customers can enjoy tea and cake over a book.
Valda added: “It is a cosy, intimate setting. And it can be advantageous to have several things under one roof.”
(Not) lighting up
Opening in November 2014 in Abbeygate Street, Ecigwizard became one of the first vape shops in Bury.
Yas Murr has worked as customer assistant for almost all of that time and feels a modern product benefits from an old fashioned sales approach.
She said: “There are a lot of products and flavours, which can be confusing for a customer online. A lot can say it is overwhelming.
“With shops customers can come in and talk to someone to find out what product works for them.
“I think it is a business type that is here to stay.”