The number of empty shop units in Northampton is the highest it has ever been in the Chronicle & Echo’s yearly town healthcheck – with the Grosvenor Centre baring the brunt of recent closures.
The Chron has been running its own high street survey to count the empty premises in the town centre since 2009, when there were 76 vacant units.
In 2012, there were 68 empty, prompting some optimism that the town was beginning to turn around the effects of the recession.
Though for the past two years that figure has remained at 77, amid what many have described as challenging trading conditions for the high street.
This year, despite major works to Abington Street and two major clothing brands relocating to the Grosvenor Centre, that figure has risen to 83.
The centre, dubbed the “engine room of Northampton town centre” by its owners Legal & General has five more empty outlets than last year, 12 in total.
But of the stores to have closed there in the past year, six were clothing outlets.
Cabinet member for enterprise, planning and regeneration at Northampton Borough Council, Councillor Tim Hadland (Con, Old Duston) said the centre was adjusting to the arrival of two retail giants.
He said: “If you get Primark and Next coming in that will inevitably change the centre of gravity in a shopping centre.
“Next and Primark are clearly sucking up some of those clothing pounds and that is bound to affect competitors.”
Director of Partnerships for Better Business (DFBB), which runs Northampton’s Business Improvement District, Ian Ferguson, said business rates continued to be a big issue for shopping centre traders, as they were often stung with far higher bills than those on the high street.
He said: “Shopping centres across the country have got the highest proportion of vacancies. About 15 per cent of all units in shopping centres are empty. But the current business rates are based on rateable values drawn up in 2008, before the recession hit.
“It means the rate bills people are paying are pretty steep in today’s economy, compared to a time of boom. They can be anything up to 40 per cent on your turnover – that’s a huge weight around the necks of retailers generally.”
But the Chron’s survey is not all doom and gloom. Abington Street has one more empty unit than the same time last year, but a number are set to reopen in the town’s main shopping stretch.
Gregory Max Barbers is due to open in the long vacant former Jane Norman store and award-winning Daniel Grainger Hairdressing is also due to open an outlet in the High Street. The McManus owned Eastgate pub, though classed as closed in the Chron’s survey, is due to reopen after a refurbishment next year.
Though there has been a mixed reaction to opening the top end of the street to traffic from traders, Northampton South MP David Mackintosh believes there is more consumer confidence in the street. “Since Abington Street was reopened and two hours free parking introduced the area is now undeniably more vibrant and busy,” he said. “Whenever I am there I notice how the parking bays are full and there are many more people around than in the past.
“De-pedestrianisation and free parking has helped to stop the decline and has even begun to turn things around.”
Sales are up says Grosvenor Centre manager despite closures
The manager of the Grosvenor Centre, Russell Hall, says “key retailers” are reporting better sales figures despite the fact there are more empty units in the mall this year.
He said: “As we look to develop the retail mix at the centre we will inevitably have units that are vacant in order to deliver the unit size and space that retailers now require.
“Our recent market research and sales analysis shows there has been increased sales performance for key retailers following the substantial investment.”
Mr Hall said the refurbishment works have changed the “look and feel” of the centre and have made the mall, which is in its 40th year, “more in line with shoppers’ expectations of a modern retail environment.”
He added that he felt Primark and Next, which both opened in the Grosvenor Centre in utumn 2014, were “fantastic introductions” for the mall.
Silvermine jewellers, Boyz clothing, Internacionale and OPEN have all closed this year.
But as to whether the centre has had its day, Mr Hall said New Look and Boots have both undertaken “substantial refurbishments in 2015, showing their confidence in the Grosvenor Centre.”
Finally he said that the centre was due to make announcements of new arrivals coming there “shortly.”
Upturn in new firms at Market Walk despite Next moving out
A year ago there were fears the loss of Next would signal a death knell for Market Walk – but the arcade branded as Northampton’s premier fashion destination has actually seen an upturn in new firms.
While the empty two-storey unit once occupied by Next leaves a large void in the indoor shopping space, a bespoke framing company and a designer clothing exchange are among the new businesses to open their doors there.
Managing director of Swishing, the women’s fashion boutique and style exchange, Heather Stewart, opened the store on the upper floor of Market Walk at the end of 2014. “We knew we would have to build up word of mouth before we opened here,” she said.
“We knew we couldn’t rely on the organic footfall through the centre.
“But our sales have increased month on month since moving in here, with the exception of July and August.
“We are really pleased with how our customer base has built up.”
This year has also seen independent traders Mistygrove Framing and Warzone Workshop, a store selling collectable fantasy board game products, open up.
Of Market Walk’s 25 potential outlets, seven are empty, though that is an improvement of three on last year’s figures and it is understood two of the empty shops are currently being used as storage by other businesses.
Jack Paravicini, legal counsel for London-based Bursha Holdings, which owns Market Walk, said part of the improved occupancy rate is down to rent free incentives being offered to new firms.
He said: “While the situation has improved we are aware as anyone there is a lot of work to do at that centre. We are looking at options as to how we might maximise the occupancy in the future, whether it’s a focus away from retail to say restaurants, or some other form of leisure attraction.
“We are always open to ideas.”
However Mr Paravicini, said there were no firm bidders for the large former Next unit.
“We have had some discussions over potential tenants, he said.
“But nothing is close to being finalised.”
Store owner Philip Pipe has so much confidence in Market Walk, he has two shops there, bodybuilding store Fitness Inc and Warzone Workshop, previously mentioned.
He said: “My businesses are in the same position as some of the other stores round here. It doesn’t matter where that shop (Warzone Workshop) is situated, there is an audience for that gaming community and they will come and find the store. It’s not like a kebab, which needs to be out there on the high street.”
Results of the main shopping streets in Northampton.
Abington Street: 76 occupied, 12 empty.
St Giles Street: 44 occupied six empty
Market Square: 23 occupied, 4 empty
Grosvenor Centre: 54 occupied, 8 empty
Market Walk: 15 occupied, 10 empty
The Drapery: 27 occupied, 4 empty
Gold Street: 51 occupied, 11 empty.
Bridge Street: 31 occupied, 9 empty
Abington Street: 75 occupied, 13 empty
St Giles Street: 50 occupied, 7 empty
Market Square: 21 occupied, 6 empty
Grosvenor Centre: 48 occupied, 12 empty (NB total number of units has dropped by 2)
Market Walk: 18 occupied, 7 empty
The Drapery: 24 occupied, 7 empty
Gold Street: 52 occupied, 10 empty
Bridge Street 33 occupied, 7 empty