Retailers in East Anglia’s town and city centres are looking towards 2022 as a year of recovery in which they aim to entice shoppers back into their stores.
A report published on Monday revealed the scale of the hit they suffered during the pandemic with Norwich losing the equivalent of 33 weeks of potential sales, while Ipswich lost 31 weeks.
The rise of the Omicron variant at the year’s turn also saw retailers impacted in the run up to peak Christmas trading .
While there is no data currently available to show how much retailers in East Anglia lost in the build-up to Christmas, data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that the volume of monthly retail sales in Great Britain fell 3.7pc between November and December.
On top of this, inflation and energy bills are rising. This not only impacts the amount customers have to spend, but also retailers’ overheads.
Despite these challenges, retail firms are optimistic about the year ahead.
“There are concerns around the cost of living, as well as staff shortages,” said Mark Cordell, CEO of Our Bury St Edmunds Business Improvement District, an organisation that helps and supports local businesses. “But overall businesses are optimistic. We are cautiously optimistic.
“January is always a quiet month but it’s not been as quiet as expected. Retailers are very resilient and very determined.”
Paul McCarthy, general manager of Chantry Place a shopping centre in Norwich, also revealed that the pandemic had been tough on retailers with footfall still not back to pre-pandemic levels.
But he is also positive about the year ahead.
He said: “Over the next few weeks we will be in a position to announce another big name coming to the centre, as well as soon being able to announce other brands arriving this year, which will be brilliant for Norwich.
“We currently only have a handful of units empty, with five currently not trading, but are in negotiations or final stages for four of these. Plus, we are utilising other space inside the centre for pop ups and have the arrival of Kwik Pix today, as well as others next month.
Retailers looking to get shoppers back into their stores know that they have to adapt to meet the challenging climate and make their shops attractive to customers.
Mr McCarthy said: “With the Covid Plan B measures being lifted next week, what we need now is for people to continue to feel confident again to socialise, shop in person and with friends, to eat out and attend events.
“Our aim is to create and deliver an incredible customer experience, every day and give people a reason to visit, and we know we will do that with more exciting brands coming to the centre this year.”
In Bury St Edmunds, retailers are also working hard to make their shops appealing to customers.
Mr Cordell said: “Retail businesses have had to adapt during the pandemic.
“They’ve been assessing what their customers want.
“With the rules around masks, for example, they’ve had to make customers feel comfortable shopping.
“To attract customers we need to make it fun. We need to make it enjoyable.”
To help bring back customers into its store, Norwich independent department store Jarrold is investing in growing its popular counters.
John Adams, managing director at Jarrold, said: “We have a positive outlook for 2022 and that includes continuing to invest in our future. The largest investment is an expansion of the deli and foodhall.”
The Buttermarket Centre in Ipswich has also been looking to invest in improving its shopping experience. Centre manager Allan Hassell, said: “The Buttermarket Centre has fared well in the face of hard times during this pandemic. In 2020 Coast to Coast’s offer left the centre and was replaced by fresh burger brand The Burger Priest. Currently under way is the construction of Boom Battle Bar due to open in spring 2022, which will bring an exciting new proposition to the Buttermarket and Ipswich. Our landlord DTZi is also heavily investing in the Buttermarket Centre and the second phase of our £2m refurbishment works is nearing completion.”
For the region’s cities, spring and summer will be a key time for attracting tourists to city centres and into shops.
“In the spring and summer Bury is a tourism destination,” Cordell said. “Although we expect an increase in foreign travel, we still think people will come back.”
Small retailers: call for more government help
Throughout the pandemic many small retail businesses have depended on government grants and loans to help them survive.
However, a lot of the financial help has now dried up.
For example, the government grants launched at the end of last year to help firms through the rise of the Omicron variant was only available to leisure and hospitality. This means shop owners missed out.
Some financial help is still available to retailers, but these are loans that need to be repaid, such as the Recovery Loan Scheme, which is available until June 2022.
Many shop owners, however, feel that this isn’t enough to help a sector that was so badly hit by the pandemic and which is often having to fight against international giants to survive.
“Retailers during the pandemic had a very difficult time,” said Mark Cordell at Our Bury St Edmunds Business Improvement District. “Retailers have been able to apply for some business funding, but going forward more help would be welcomed.
“Governments have been talking for years about reviewing business rates. Town centre businesses are paying higher rates than retailers like Amazon, even though Amazon increased sales during the pandemic.
“If the government implemented changes to business rates it would help to make a more even playing field.”
Gwyn Durand-Grace, owner of independent pottery shop Fire & Flux Ceramics based in Norwich Lanes, agreed that financial support from the government would help small businesses to recover from the pandemic.
She said: “The pandemic was difficult, but the government help really helped small businesses like mine.
“It is a concerning time as we don’t know what is coming. It’s going to take a couple of years to recover and it’s a very worrying time. We feel that we’re going to be hit hard by the rising cost in living and it’s going to take a couple of years to recover. It’s a very worry time. Small businesses would welcome financial support.”
Shop owners will be looking to the next Budget, due to be announced in Parliament in March, to see if any further financial help will be given to small retailers.