Northampton's Independent traders say signposts and spending will save our town centre
This past month, the Chronicle & Echo asked Northampton's shoppers what they wanted from their town centre. The results this week has shown the overwhelming support for our independent traders.
Out of more than 1,300 responses, over 75 percent of people say they use and support independent shops and cafes. They praise the service and stock that they just don't get in a chain store, and want to see them flourish.
One respondent even wrote: "Make Abington Street more like St Giles Street - clean pavements, interesting shops and pretty shop frontages... We should be supporting local business owners and encouraging them to stay trading and spending in Northampton."
But do the homegrown businesses of St Giles Street feel this supported?
"We had a record week over this year's Father's Day," says Steve Ward of St Giles Cheese. "It goes against the grain of saying the town centre is dying.
"But the footfall here must be a tenth of what you see on Abington Street. I would love to see some signposting for the little businesses on this street."
This sentiment is shared by many other shop owners. St Giles is a hub for non-chain businesses. Signposting seems such a simple fix to drive customers and newcomers in Northampton to find its independent stores. A prime spot for a sign would be by the Ridings Arcade, which links St Giles with Abington Street, or at the top of Fish Street.
But some things are just out of the shop owners' hands.
"If there is ever a traffic accident the whole town comes to a stop," says Tony Egan of Blenders Coffee. "This can be disastrous. All it takes is one bad visit or a traffic jam for shoppers to say 'that's it, I'm never coming here again'. And I don't know what the borough council's playing at increasing the parking charges [on weekends].
"This town could be beautiful. It really is fantastic. But they should never have taken down Greyfriars without a plan in mind."
Many other residents called for business rates in the town to be slashed to help businesses. However, business rates are not set by the borough council but by central Government.
And, starting earlier this year, stores that historically paid less than Â£12,000-a-year - which is calculated by floorspace - do not have to pay business rates at all. This includes many small shops on St Giles.
This doesn't help large stores like boutique-fashion hotspot Montague Jeffery, one of St Giles Streets' oldest residents at 117 years.
Owner Jonathan Williams said: "I pay Â£15,000 a year in rates, and then there's rent. Compare that to an internet business trading out of a shed on an industrial estate who pays nothing at all.
"In the years gone by the council has shown they really listen to department stores and retailers first. Hopefully, now they will listen a bit more to the independent stores. They are the heart and soul of Northampton.
"You won't find character, stock or service like this in Milton Keynes or a retail park. But if the general public does not make use of us then we won't survive."
In contrast, one of St Giles newest residents says the support of the borough council has been "amazing". Interior design and gift store MOOCH opened in 2017 with the help of a combined Â£15,000 match-spending grant.
Owner Rachel Roberts said: "Every day we get customers telling us we are just what they want to see in Northampton. They love the friendly, family-orientated customer service. We work hard to bring that.
"I get that it's not everybody's story but we've engaged with the council and it's working out amazingly.
"St Giles has a very clear identity for unique stores and boutique. I would like to see the town centre districts find their own identity."
The suggestions and solutions of Northampton's independent stores are as varied as its shoppers. It ranges from little fixes to complete overhauls in infrastructure. Some small business owners are concerned that the drop of footfall that could come with the closure of Marks & Spencers will lead to a drop-off in their own customers.
But this could be the push Northampton needs to decide what it wants to be; a high street of retailers or become a centre of homegrown business. But shoppers must also vote with their feet and show who they support.