Is it time to give St Stephens Street a revamp?
- Credit: Archant
A major thoroughfare into the retail hub of Norwich is looking increasingly empty as the high street reopens.
With more empty units than independent retailers, window shoppers might be more likely to find a 'to let' sign than something to spark a spend.
Here, Eleanor Pringle talks to businesses and experts on what can be done to give the street a revamp.
St Stephens Street, which welcomes thousands of people every day thanks to its various bus stops and passing traffic, should be buzzing with trade.
Instead, some of its biggest units lie empty with the number of vacancies on the street outweighing the number of independent retailers.
Currently some shops - including the former Primark store - are in darkness.
Then of course, Debenhams will be emptying as lockdown restrictions ease further, taking another anchor out of the city centre street.
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Those shops which are occupied are overwhelmingly part of a much bigger chains - prompting experts to question whether Norwich is offering shoppers enough diversity.
Professor Joshua Bamfield of the Centre for Retail Research said: "St Stephens Street runs the risk of feeling bland. The offering is beginning to look like something you can find anywhere - whether it's elsewhere in Norfolk or anywhere else in the UK - and that means you're not giving shoppers enough of a reason to go there.
"Thirty years ago you had a lot of independent and more diverse brands - the Co-Operative department store to name one of many - but since then we've seen a lot more national brands move in.
"From our research we're seeing people becoming much more engaged after lockdown with their local area - whether it's history, local walks, what's going on, activities to do. I can see those empty units being used to cater to visitors.
"When it comes to the larger sites like the former BHS store I think the idea of incubators and indoor markets are very interesting. The thing to get right is that they work together - you can't have a high end boutique being traipsed through by people wandering in to pick up a paper so it does need to be managed.
"It needs a joined approach between the councils, the BIDs, the landlords, the businesses, so that we're not scratching our heads in three years time wondering why we've still got too many retail units and empty spaces."
Nisbets Catering Equipment occupies one of the largest units on the road with manager Cristina Fonken saying more independent hospitality businesses on the street would be welcome.
"It would be great if one of the empty units was taken over by a cafe or bakery for a few reasons," she said. "Firstly because it would bring more intentional footfall to the area - a lot of people just come here to pass the bus and we don't tend to have people coming in for a browse.
"Part of that though is to do with the fact that we have a more specialised offering. It has got quieter since Primark moved simply because there are fewer people up here.
"Independents also make up the majority of our customers. I'd say 60pc is business owners who run a couple of independent businesses, about 10 to 20pc are the corporates and the rest are domestic cooking. We are part of a group but we always go out of our way to support independent businesses. The corporate arm of our business can offer discounts to their clients so we try and do what we can to go the extra mile for ours too.
"I think being an independent definitely helps us," added Neil Harris, manager men's clothing shop Jonathan Trumbull & Hatters.
"Not only because we have a more niche offering of high-quality items but also because people know they'll get a high standard of service from us. We've been extremely busy since we opened - I think partly because we were trading online in lockdown so people came back into store as soon as they could."
- What do shoppers think?
Iris Goodfellow and Carole Fowler said their favourite shop on the road was Bonmarche.
"It's got a bit more of an offering for us," said Ms Goodfellow. "We were worried when we saw the news that it could close because it is one of the shops which sells stuff more aimed towards shoppers like us.
"It would be a shame not only for the shop but also to have another empty space in the city centre."
Ms Fowler added: "I think something like a bakery would be nice but we don't need another coffee shop - especially a chain. If we get a cup of tea from anywhere we go to the market or one of the smaller vans on the Haymarket - we like to support smaller businesses where we can.
"To be honest we don't really come to St Stephens in particular for shopping - we just live close by so we end up here when we're out for some fresh air."
Norwich shopper Mark Honan said: "If I have a few groceries to buy it's very convenient - especially with the mall in there as well. The business I use the most is actually the Post Office and WH Smiths really as I go in to pick up the paper.
"In the empty units I'd really like to see something like an indoor market. I think it'd give space to a lot of independent retailers, having lived in other cities I've seen how it can really work for a lot of businesses."
And fellow shopper Paul Roe added: "I think we've got enough conventional shops and cafes. Perhaps it'd be good to see more general shops - or even an art gallery.
"I naturally come through the street every day because I live close by - it's not necessarily for shopping but more because I'm on my way to somewhere."