Graham Soult
Graham Soult

Member Article

Graham Soult’s retail view

Read the stream of headlines about retail collapses, vacant shops and plunging consumer confidence, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the high street is in terminal decline.

No-one would deny that retailers are having a challenging time right now, and the run-up to Christmas – when many stores generate a good chunk of their annual sales and profits – will be a critical period. The downturn has seen off many retail chains that were already struggling, and there will almost certainly be more.

However, look around at how retail is bearing up in the North East’s town and city centres and there’s a surprising amount to be positive about.

Back in 2008, Woolies’ collapse left 33 vacant shops across our region. Three years later, most people are surprised when I tell them that only four of those sites remain empty.

From Berwick to Redcar, many of these stores have been taken over by expanding discount retailers, such as B&M, Poundland, Home Bargains and Store Twenty One. These chains have brought important new investment, jobs and footfall to some of our smaller town centres, helping to mitigate the negative impact of Woolworths’ demise.

Elsewhere, some of the larger ex-Woolies sites are allowing big-name retailers to cement their North East presence. In Hartlepool, the former Woolworths is becoming a new-concept BHS store – one of the first in the country, and an important boost for the town’s retail offer. At Metrocentre, Primark is taking advantage of the freed-up Woolies space to open a massive new anchor store, while Poundworld has chosen Middlesbrough for one of the first stores under its multi-price DiscountUK fascia.

Away from Woolworths, Northumberland’s market towns have also seen important developments. Beales’ investment in transforming Robbs of Hexham, the impressive Sanderson Arcade development in Morpeth, and Wilkinson’s recent arrival in Alnwick have all had a positive impact on those towns’ appeal to shoppers.

Unsurprisingly, Newcastle remains the region’s most important retail centre, accounting for annual retail expenditure of more than £1.2bn. In recent years, the city’s Northumberland Street has seen rent levels decline from their peak, but it remains one of the UK’s top ten shopping thoroughfares. Here too, Primark and BHS are making major investments in flagship stores – Primark expanding into the former BHS, and BHS taking over the old Next.

Along the street, Swedish hardware retailer Clas Ohlson recently opened the doors of its twelfth UK store, choosing Newcastle ahead of other major retail centres such as Bristol, Edinburgh and Glasgow. It was rewarded with a queue of 600 shoppers ahead of the store’s grand opening – the biggest turnout for any of its UK launches to date.

For all the growth of out-of-town and online retailing, canny and innovative retailers are recognising that there’s still a place in people’s hearts for the high street. Times may be tough, but the North East’s town centres are doing a pretty good job of weathering the storm.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Graham Soult .

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