Southend High Street tells bleak story of British retail – The Guardian

It is 9.15am on the warmest day of the yr thus far, and Southend-on-Sea Excessive Road is eerily quiet. In the direction of the southern finish, close to the Essex city’s Thames estuary waterfront, a herring gull paces up and down outdoors a chip store. If it’s ready for scraps, it could possibly be there some time; above the shuttered quick meals outlet is a “store to let” signal.

A passerby, Bernadette De Villiers, is dissatisfied; she has come into the city centre to go to the financial institution – however it’s not but open.

“I believed there can be barely extra occurring than this,” De Villiers says. She believes the blanket lockdown was an overreaction. “I feel there’s solely so lengthy that you would be able to fake one thing is way extra lethal than it truly is,” she says.

Subsequent to the chippie, a small greengrocer’s is open, though the proprietor, Mohammad Lim, isn’t positive how for much longer he can preserve going. “Enterprise could be very unhealthy,” he says. “I might say 80% down.” Even with small enterprise fee aid, he’s having to pay £3,000 a month hire plus payments, and in the meanwhile there’s not sufficient cash coming in to cowl that.

“The council doesn’t do an excellent job encouraging folks to come back to the Excessive Road. We hope now, within the summertime, folks will come out once more.”

From this week a gradual easing of the lockdown will see outside markets and automobile showrooms in England given the inexperienced mild. A extra liberal coverage from 15 June will see 1000’s of  mothballed excessive road retailers, buying centres and malls, together with John Lewis, opening their doorways.

The electronics store Currys, the homewares retailer Dunelm and the automobile equipment chain Halfords have already opened shops, whereas Ikea says it is going to open its 19 shops on 1 June, with one its largest just some miles down the Thames at Grays.

A stroll down the Excessive Road in Southend – and lots of prefer it up and down the UK – tells a bleak story of the fast and lasting influence that Covid-19 is having on enterprise.

Some retailers have survived, even thrived, throughout the lockdown; however many haven’t. Huge names have been humbled.

In Royals buying centre, Debenhams, as soon as the flagship of this and different excessive streets, is closed. This department of the veteran retailer is because of reopen submit lockdown, in contrast to some others within the nation after the corporate fell into administration for the second time in a yr.

What was BHS is now a constructing website, and a busy one as the development sector is up and working in England. It’s going to be a Primark.

Slightly additional up is Marks & Spencer, the place an extended queue has shaped this morning – although well-observed bodily distancing makes a queue appear longer than it truly is.

Julie Johnson, a furloughed administrator, bought right here early and has already been in. “I might reasonably go to the retailers than do it on the web; I didn’t do dwelling supply earlier than. Plus, I can purchase the decreased stuff.”

Johnson thinks that when the well being disaster is over the Excessive Road could possibly be improved, with extra particular person retailers. Not solely does Southend have the identical retailers as each different excessive road, it has the identical retailers additional alongside itself. “Boots, Greggs, H&M … . Truly, there’s three Greggs.”

There’s just one Bella Italia, a restaurant chain set to herald directors with 6,000 jobs in danger. And Patisserie Valerie had already closed final yr.

It’s a reminder that the demise of the British excessive road was nicely underneath approach earlier than the coronavirus struck. In December, excessive road footfall was 3.5% down on the earlier yr, and 20.5% down within the final decade.

The excessive road has taken a number of hits over time, from out-of-town buying centres, the monetary disaster, the web, Jeff Bezos and Amazon.

The coronavirus disaster has massively accelerated the decline. Melanie Leech, the chief govt of the British Property Federation, stated the expected 50% discount in retailers on the common excessive road may occur within the subsequent two years.

Ron Woodley, a Southend-on-Sea councillor, acknowledges the large challenges and says excessive streets – not least his personal – must adapt.

He doesn’t agree with Lim, the greengrocer, that the council isn’t doing something to assist.

Woodley describes the key redevelopment programmes happening, with lots of of latest town-centre houses being constructed, a brand new multistorey automobile park and a scheme that may permit folks to park cheaply on the town. “Additionally, we’re doing various things alongside the approaches to the Excessive Road, tarting them up, placing in crops, completely different paving, making it engaging.”

However crops and paving are usually not going to be sufficient to carry folks again. “That is the place the federal government has bought to suppose otherwise,” says Woodley. “You’ve bought folks like Amazon delivering in from warehouses outdoors, the enterprise charges are decrease, they’re having a serious influence on the Excessive Road and native retailers.”

Woodley reckons Amazon – and different e-commerce firms – must be hit with a 20% supply levy. “The federal government goes to have to lift cash someplace and that’s the best way to do it.”

Woodley says there are plans to interrupt the Excessive Road up into extra distinct sections, with many of the huge shops at every finish, and between them sections of “cafe tradition” and unbiased retailers.

Which might put Caddies, on the high finish of Southend Excessive Road, within the flawed place. However proper now that’s the least of co-owner George Bejko-Cowlbeck’s worries.

“We’ve gone from being an excellent enterprise to turning over completely zero,” he says. He’s not at work right now and doesn’t know when he shall be.

Caddies is a hybrid – bar, restaurant, loopy golf. Beijko-Cowlbeck and his enterprise accomplice opened up right here two years in the past as a result of it was cheaper than being in a buying centre, but in addition as a result of they understood and had religion within the Excessive Road. “There are a whole lot of vacationers in the summertime, and even within the winter there are lots of people within the night; there’s an excellent social facet. Retail is struggling, however the leisure facet of it was doing fairly nicely. Till this.”

The workers are furloughed, however outgoings don’t cease. Takeaway doesn’t work as a result of Caddies is “an expertise, you go there for the leisure and the enjoyable issue of it”.

The fear and uncertainty is not only about once they would possibly be capable of open once more, but in addition whether or not it will likely be doable in any respect.

“Persons are a part of the ambiance of the venue. If you happen to put social distancing in, it reduces our capability down from about 120 covers to lower than 50, and the hire doesn’t modify. It may get to some extent the place it simply begins to turn into unviable.”

Bejko-Cowlbeck says he’s an optimist, however he has worries for the road that his enterprise depends on. “I feel it is going to wrestle,” he says. “I converse to some folks they usually’re itching to get again out; different persons are residing in concern. It’s a really complicated state of affairs. I feel it’s going to take a very long time to get again to regular. I hope by Christmas that we’ve realized to dwell with it higher and really feel extra assured to return to the Excessive Road.”

He has no plans to get out of the hospitality and leisure sector; it’s the place his coronary heart is. “I might reasonably be completely happy on a sinking ship than unhappy in one which’s floating off into the gap,” he laughs.

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