'It's more than just popping out for a pint of milk': Northampton retailers 'bucked national trend' to enjoy successful Christmas period
For a sample of how Northampton retailers fared during reportedly the worst year for the industry in a quarter of a century, few have a better perspective than a town centre institution.
Montague Jeffery has been selling menswear for nearly 120 years from its shop on St Giles Street with current owner Jonathan Williams in charge for four decades.
"December was broadly in line with 2018. Footfall certainly was down but the customers that we did have in were spending slightly more so it was more or less the same," he said.
Mr Williams believes his shop and St Giles Street benefits from the like-minded independent businesses whereas other areas of the town centre are too focused on price.
The closure of Marks and Spencer in 2018 has been one of the biggest blows to retailers with many people losing a reason to go into town, he believes.
Other issues such as parking, cleanliness and out-of-town retail parks have also had an effect but Mr Williams is upbeat about the state of the industry in Northampton.
"I think as long as we have got a good offering of independent retailers in town, hopefully, customers will still venture into town and visit us," he said.
On December 23, Vintage Guru experienced its busiest day since opening the same month M&S closed, with many of the artisans featured in the St Giles Street shop enjoying a prosperous month.
Shop co-owner Julie Teckman believes they were helped by winning the annual Christmas window competition as well as more people knowing about them.
"People do seem to want different things as a lot of people wanted second-hand presents rather than more and more stuff," she said.
Total sales in the UK fell 0.1 per cent last year, according to The British Retail Consortium (BRC) in a report published last week, marking the first annual sales decline since 1995.
The report adds that sales in November and December fell 0.9 per cent, with political instability and a late Black Friday partly to blame, as well as a fall in consumer confidence.
However, a Northamptonshire Chamber of Commerce survey shows domestic sales and orders in the county increased from October to December last year compared to the previous quarter.
Around half actively recruited during the period and more than 60 per cent were confident about the future, the survey results say.
But businesses experienced a drop in overseas demand for their goods and more than half of those who attempted to recruit had difficulties in attracting appropriate staff.
Chamber of commerce chief executive Paul Griffiths said: “The latest survey goes to show the resilience and positive attitudes of our county’s business community.
“Weak growth, a decrease in consumer demand, export sales and investment intentions were being felt nationally at the end of last year but Northamptonshire’s businesses demonstrated stable and strong results during the quarter."
Several shops in Northampton have closed over the last 12 months, including high street regulars like Dorothy Perkins, Game and Martin's newsagents as well as independents such as Peppertrees and Factory Outlet.
As well as new additions such as Barnado's, The Rose Gallery and Hay's Travel plus plenty of restaurants like Humpit and Taco Bell.
Meanwhile Weston Favell Shopping Centre finished the year with no empty units and centre manager Kevin Legg believes it is all about adapting to what consumers want.
"In general it's very tough for a number of reasons as people's shopping habits change but the retail offer has got to change with them and we have to this point," he said.
"It's about more than just popping out for a pint of milk now so we have a range of business in the centre like more cafes and leisure options.
"But people have to make a choice to come to Weston Favell Shopping Centre and to see our footfall increase is heartening."
Looking ahead to this year, Mr Williams is confident Northampton can thrive with the right support and now the political future seems clearer.
"It's all about consumer confidence and if consumers feel things are better then there's a fair chance retail will fair well too," he said.