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Will The High Street Be A Virus Victim?

Published on: 16 Apr, 2020
Updated on: 23 Apr, 2020

By Hugh Coakley

The lockdown continues to astonish us with the breadth and depth of its reach, but as it does people are starting to discuss what will the town centre look like once it is over.

And the question is not will the town centre be affected, but rather by how much.

A deserted Guildford High Street on a Friday afternoon where the only activity is at Sainsbury’s.

Guildford town centre, although faring better than many towns, was suffering before the coronavirus crisis hit. Online competition and rising costs caused many chain stores to close, such as LK Bennet, Links of London, Thomas Cooks, Maplins, Mothercare and Patisserie Valerie.

These same adverse factors are still in play and online has now become the main, if not only, way for many to shop during the emergency. Will the internet hang on to that extra share?

The unusual sight of an empty North Street on market day.

The Guildford Dragon was reporting on a looming crisis last year but looking back now and in the face of a 35% drop in GDP in 2020, it seems almost rosy in comparison.

Marks & Spencer, at one time the darling of the high street, has axed its dividend to preserve cash because its clothing arm faced being “severely impacted”.

Many are saying that the most likely outcome will be a speeding up of what had already been happening. “It will be survival of the fittest,” Ben Darnton, owner of Ben’s Collectors Records, told The Guildford Dragon NEWS.

Guildford Borough Council’s retail aspirations were cut back 15 months ago when it announced the North Street development was to be “primarily residential”. Will there have to be a further rethink on the proportion of retail to residential? With the potential for a housing market crash, will the development go ahead at all?

Debenhams has called in the administrators.

Debenhams and House of Fraser, important landmarks in the town, have both been on the brink of closing for some time. Debenhams has now called in the administrators. House of Fraser, which advertised its High Street store for rent as recently as February this year, has been looking very quiet for some time. The shutdown cannot be helping its chances of survival.

Restaurants and cafes have been an important part of the prosperous Guildford town centre with 100 listed on the Experience Guildford website. Mid-price restaurants such as Jamies’ Italian, Giraffe, Chilli Pickle, struggled and closed. Will more restaurants be forced into closure?

Small independents haven’t been deterred and have opened anyway. Brasil Vegano, Sicool Sicilian and Bombay Buzz all opened earlier this year. Will they be resilient enough to continue if the shut down is in place for much longer?

The only shop open in Friary Street on Wednesday afternoon was the new Indian takeaway, Bombay Buzz. Owners Raj and Manjushree Sachdeva said that they were only open for three hours for Deliveroo orders.

The shopping centres in the town also look to be affected. The Friary in North Street will be looking anxiously at the revenue stream from its tenants. Top Shop, owned by Sir Philip Green, and Primark have been reported as declining to pay their full rent.  Both are prominent tenants in The Friary.

The controversial Tunsgate Quarter, which opened two years ago last month, has never managed to let all of its shop units. And now, Cath Kidson is calling in the administrators. What is the future now for Tunsgate Quarter?

One of the tenants in Tunsgate Quarter, Cath Kitson, has called in the administrators potentially leaving the shopping centre with another empty shop unit.

In the aftermath, there will no doubt be calls for more regulation of online companies like Amazon and eBay to reduce their increasing dominance in the market. They are astonishingly good at what they do and maybe their way is the right way forward for retail. Has high street shopping seen its day?

What can our local council do? A parking charge amnesty when the shops open would be popular with traders but with about a third of the council’s income being dependant on parking charges, it would be a difficult call to make.

It all adds up to a grim time ahead.

One outcome is likely. When the lockdown is lifted, expect massive sales to encourage spending and to shift the huge amount of unsold stock now held by retailers.

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