Fringe Box



No Surge in Post-lockdown Shop Closures But Guildford’s Retail Future Remains Uncertain

Published on: 3 Jun, 2021
Updated on: 3 Jun, 2021

By Hugh Coakley

Guildford’s town centre retail sector is holding up and the feared post-lockdown increase in shop closures has not materialised.  

This is the result revealed by a Dragon survey which shows that the number of empty shop units, 59, has increased by just two compared with a year ago. And levels of footfall in the High Street seems to have quickly recovered if not, so far, to pre-pandemic levels.

Cllr Redpath said Guildford had to evolve to provide “an experience” to visitors. Di Parker, GBC market coordinator, said the monthly Farmer’s Market “gets people into the town centre”. The Vegan market is on June 20, Antiques on June 27, Arts and Makers on July 4 and Children’s Business Fair on July 17.

But confidence is cautious. A trader in The Friary said he was just getting by, saying: “People are being very choosey about what they are buying.”

The winners in taking over vacant town centre shops continue to be cafes and restaurants with five of the 11 new, or soon to be opened, businesses being dining establishments. Reduced rents, reported to be around 20% lower, are helping the new starters.

“We are very busy,” said Alex Bellion, director of the Owen Isherwood, the commercial estate agents. “There is a lot of local and regional food and service type occupiers showing interest.”

The only unoccupied shop in Tunsgate, ex-Gift Search, is under offer. One rumour is that it might be a bike shop.

But there are still large gaps in the High Street and North Street. Some shop units, for example those formerly occupied by Thomas Cook, Patisserie Valerie and LK Bennett, have been empty for around two years and the longer they are vacant, questions are raised about rent or their viability as retail premises.

Landlords and planners are under pressure to consider change of use and more flexible terms and conditions (see Offices Planned At White Lion Walk, Next To Move To The Friary).

This prime location in the High Street, formerly occupied by Thomas Cook for 40 years, has been empty since 2019.

And while the number of empty shops has steadied over the previous 12 months, a Dragon survey in January 2019 counted 47 empty shops, 12 less than our latest survey. A combination of the first Covid lockdown and online shopping, boosted in the pandemic, has taken its toll.

Also, the moratorium on commercial evictions finishes at the end of June and this may see further shop renters not renewing their leases or even facing eviction for unpaid rent. This can only increase the downward pressure on rents and, eventually, business rates.

If footfall is an indication of the levels of business, it is not all good news with a reduction of over 25% compared to 2019. But as expected after lockdown, it has increased rapidly with a 212% increase from 2020. This compares with around 190% increase for the South East and the UK, showing there is more shopper activity returning in Guildford than in other parts of the region and country.

A diner eating out in Tunsgate said it is “buzzing like Camden Town” with the juggler and the busker.

John Redpath (R4GV, Holy Trinity), lead for the economy, was hopeful of a town centre bounce-back provided “landlords were being realistic”.

He pointed to the atmosphere in Tunsgate where jugglers and buskers mix with the diners eating outside the cafes and restaurants. “Guildford has to evolve where people are coming here for an experience. We have to realise the value of our heritage assets and we have to make sure it looks good and clean.”

Soho Fine Art has moved into the Tunsgate Quarter but there are still several shops empty more than three years after opening.

The new openers in town include Oishii serving Japanese pancakes in Friary Street (formally Bombay Buzz, under the same team), Zaitouna Express, Lebanese takeaway in North Street under the same owner as Jeita restaurant in Chertsey Street and The Hideaway Café in the Allen House Pavilion.

Hazet, a new Turkish restaurant in Chapel Street, is said to be planning its launch for June 21 and there is a planning application for a new Lebanese lunch takeaway in Upper High Street, in the former Pims Kitchen unit.

The non-food starters include IS-Smart-Tech in The Friary, the barbers, Jacks of London, formerly at the corner of Jeffries Passage, and Master Colourists in Constitutional Hall in the High Street, Posh Pawn (see Dragon Interview: Posh Pawn MD Tells Why He Chose Guildford) and Rituals in the High Street and Soho Fine Art in the Tunsgate Quarter.

Debenhams has finally closed in Guildford, unable to make the department store pay.

The high street losers appear to be mainly clothing chains and department stores.

Topshop is gone from The Friary after the Arcadia crash. Gone too is the iconic Debenhams with the building standing empty and likely to be demolished for luxury, town centre riverside flats.

And with the House of Fraser being the only department store, questions remain over its viability (see Ashley Puts Guildfords Giant House Of Fraser Building Up For Let and Hint Of Plan To Turn House Of Fraser Store Into High Street Hotel).

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