New figures have revealed almost a fifth of Birmingham’s shops lie empty as the economy battles to recover from the recession. Consumer Editor Emma McKinney talks to three of the city’s 100 independent retailers about their fight for survival.
Many would have us believe the recession is over, but new figures suggest consumer confidence is still in crisis.
Almost 18 per cent of Birmingham’s shops are boarded up and empty, according to a new report by The Local Data Company, which has revealed that the city has the 13th highest rate of vacant stores in the country.
And at Great Western Arcade, off Colmore Row ,in Birmingham city centre, the grim picture is all too apparent, with several of its units lying empty.
Despite having undergone a major £250,000 face-lift last year to restore the centre to its former Victorian glory, bosses are still struggling to breathe new life into the arcade, which dates back to 1875.
While other centres offered retailers rent-free periods to try and keep shops occupied, in June last year some businesses in the arcade criticised its owners Aviva Investors over rent increases of up to £3,000, saying they feared it would see the centre empty within two years.
And in January last year, some of the arcade’s shopkeepers lashed out over Aviva Investors’ decision to call in the bailiffs to collect unpaid rent.
“No sooner do new shops open, existing ones close,” said Paul Lamb, owner of Sims Footwear, which has been in the arcade for nearly a decade.
Paul admits the business is struggling to make a profit and says he is considering ways to attract new custom, including a possible “price promise” - which would see him selling his shoes and bags for less than the asking price if a customer can prove they have seen it cheaper elsewhere.
“Nowadays you have to think of everything you can to survive,” said the 47-year-old, who has worked in the shoe industry for more than 25 years.
“I think there’s a number of factors working against us, there’s obviously the recession, there’s high rent rates, the huge growth of the internet and also for us it’s been the exchange rates.
“It’s a sad reality but not many UK manufacturers make what we sell any more and we have to buy in from oversees but the Euro and the dollar have been badly hit, which has a big impact on us.
“We really try not to increase our prices but it’s a real struggle if we are to make any profit.”
He also blamed the rebirth of the Bullring shopping centre seven years ago for “decimating” the independent shopping sector in Birmingham.
“I think independent shops add such a sense of individuality and character to a city and the fact Birmingham has so few is such a shame,” he added.
“We would urge people to come here and see what we have to offer, we give great service, great products and great prices and something different to what you would find in High Street chains.”
Saima Khan, 37, shop assistant at Parchment card and stationery store in the arcade, also says business is struggling.
The store relocated to the arcade from the Mailbox last December and hoped it would help create a new customer base.
“We’ve had to have a re-think about what we sell,” says Saima. “We used to sell cards that were maybe up to £6 but it seems people just do not have the spending power they once had.
“Now we try and sell cards which are still as beautiful but more appropriately priced.
“We’ve had to be canny and find cards from suppliers that do not sell to High Street chains so that we have a product that can’t be found elsewhere, it’s the only way to remain competitive.”
However, Gay Faulkner, manager of the arcade, remains upbeat. She said the arcade has managed to attract eight new tenants in the last 10 months.
“This has happened despite the overall tough conditions currently facing the retail sector,” she added. “Our footfall figures have increased and continue to hold up well as we remain confident in the future of the arcade.”
Matthew Hill and Gary Anderson also share Gay’s optimism, being the latest owners of one of the eight new stores to have opened in the arcade.
The pair, who have shared both a friendship and a passion for food since they met at school, have chosen the arcade to launch their new venture Anderson & Hill, which they describe as a traditional-style delicatessen selling fine foods and alcohol.
The business partners believe they have found a niche in the market selling a wide range of products, many sourced from farms and manufacturers in the Midlands, including 30 kinds of artisan cheeses, olives, antipasti, marinated vegetables, biscuits, coffee and wine. They also sell take-away sandwiches and coffee made fresh using produce they sell in the shop.
“There’s no other shop like this in Birmingham city centre from what we can tell,” said Matthew, who said the pair were inspired after visiting the city’s annual Christmas German Market.
Both have extensive experience in the catering world with Gary, 31, having worked in pubs and restaurants and Matthew, 33, being a qualified chef and also owner of his own Italian food wholesalers.
“We are hugely passionate about food,” he said. “We sample everything we sell to make sure it’s the best we can find and we source the products from many award-winning producers.
“I think what’s also unique about what we have to offer is that we can not only provide unique, high quality products, but with our cooking backgrounds we can give advice on what ingredients people can buy and how they can use them.”
They said they opted to open the store in the arcade after extensive research.
“We felt the arcade was absolutely the ideal location for us in terms of its footfall and location near the business sector and Snow Hill train station,” said Gary. “It’s also beautiful in its architecture and it’s very traditional, as is our store.
“Despite being open for just a few weeks we think business is going well and we hope to build on that as word gets out that we are here. We think independent shops have so much to offer and we do hope people will support us and all the others that are out there.”