Business is booming in Norwich

There has been a national rise in the number of shops going into administration – but Norwich is bucking the trend. Ben Woods explains the key to retail success.

Unique products and strong brands are helping Norwich businesses to buck the trend and keep shops on the high street.

That is the opinion of Norwich retailers and business leaders who have continued to do good business in the city despite the gloom of the current recession.

The reaction comes as the latest figures show that city centre retail vacancies have dropped by 11pc between last July and this January – down from 121 to 108. And they have fallen 14pc since last January – down from 126. The amount of total empty floorspace dropped by 26pc between July and January – down from 28,315 sq m to 21,035 sq m.

The statistics provide a stark contrast to the rest of the country, which saw a 55pc increase in the number of shops calling in the administrators between the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011.

Fashion and homeware retailer David Holland believes the city's independent traders have remained resilient by offering unique products and keeping their business strategies flexible.

The theory is echoed by a Norwich Lanes shop owner who has broadened his business to The Mall Norwich in a bid to revamp his trade.

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Meanwhile, strong trading at the Chapelfield Shopping Centre and multi-million pound investments by major high street stores show positive signs that the city will retain its reputation as a top 10 shopping destination.

City centre partnership manager, Stefan Gurney, believes major stores making large investments in the city is a sure sign that Norwich is in good health.

'Marks & Spencers have invested an estimated �50m in the city to make their Norwich store one of their largest in the country. Meanwhile, John Lewis have also decided to invest �7m in their city centre store,' he said.

'It shows that the city is a vibrant place with a good retail offer that will maintain its position as a top retail destination.'

One independent shop owner spoke of how attractive business rates in The Mall Norwich made it possible for him to expand his business during the poor economic climate.

David Finlay, who owns Elements clothing down the Norwich Lanes, recently opened the women's fashion store, Pepper Tree Clothing in The Mall, despite his recent announcement that his shop Blue Jean Co, on Lower Goat Lane, would be closing.

'We decided to close down Blue Jean Co because we felt it had run its course, but we plan to expand Elements over the two stores in order to fill the premises,' said the 44-year-old, who has been trading in the city for 26 years.

'To be in The Mall is a real departure for me, but we have been in there a month and we are already way over target.

'If you consider that Norwich has four distinct shopping areas you realise its retail strength. You have the Norwich Lanes, the main Gentleman's Walk high street, plus Chapelfield and The Mall.

'I was a bit against shopping centres at first, but I think it draws customers into the city centre and encourages people to seek out the independent stores.'

Local independent retailer David Holland has also revised his business strategy in the wake of the poor economic climate.

The 25-year-old shop owner decided to consolidate his two shops, Bespoke Boutique and Perfect Pad, into one store on Lower Goat Lane called Another Store. He also rents out the top floor space to a barista who has converted it into a vintage caf�, Biddys Tea Rooms.

Mr Holland said the decision to create a shop where a customer could find a caf�, furniture, fashion and homeware helped broaden his customer demographic.

He said: 'Before you only had one opportunity to make a sale. Now, that customer gets the chance to see a range of different product categories. It makes us more open to different types of customer.

'I still think there is opportunity in Norwich for independent stores to succeed.

'We offer something unique compared to the high street and we have the ability to adapt quickly, while the major stores remain very regimented and have no choice but to pull out if things are not going well.'

Figures released after a survey by Norwich City Council's planning policy team showed 8pc of shops in the main shopping area were vacant compared to 10pc last year.

Meanwhile, nationwide administrations in the retail sector rose from 80 in the last quarter of 2010 to 124 in the first quarter of 2011.

Elsewhere in Norwich, John Lewis general manager Richard Marks feels the possibility of future development in the city and the surrounding county makes Norwich an even more appealing site for investment.

'We want to invest in this shop, in this part of Norwich, and continue to make the city a top retail destination,' he said.

'The possibility of dualling the A11 and plans for future housing developments gives us even further encouragement for future retail growth in the city.'

Meanwhile, the general manager of Chapelfield Shopping Centre believes the combination of prominent high street brands and strong customer service have allowed them to perform well year on year.

Davina Tanner said: 'We are in difficult times, but as a city I think we have a lot to offer.

'I have been very pleased with our performance at Chapelfield – sometimes I have to pinch myself because it seems unreal compared to the rest of the county.

'We have great brands like Apple, which offer a unique, high-quality, customer service.'

The managing director of one of Norwich's most prolific independent department stores is also looking to invest more in the city.

Peter Mitchell, of Jarrold Store Norwich, said: '2011 is not necessarily going to be a record year, but retailers are investing because it will put them in a better position in the next five to ten years.

'Our investment is not slowing down either. We are investing more than we have in the last ten years. We are looking at investment into expanding our beauty offer – people may be cutting down elsewhere but they still want to look good and feel special.

'Products in association with our in store events are also becoming more important, especially in our book department.

'In Norwich generally it seems people who are not affected by job cuts are cautiously looking to start spending.'

Are you a business which is expanding despite the recession? Contact reporter Ben Woods on 01603 772 439 or email