City centre saviour Simon Rigby knows about business trends. And he reckons Preston is bucking one.
While the battle to save the great British high street is being fought - and largely lost - across much of the UK, the jewel in Lancashire’s crown is still managing to sparkle brightly.
“The numbers don’t surprise me,” says Guild Hall owner Simon, referring to Preston’s modest retail success of late, compared to the contrasting dip in fortunes of big-hitters like Manchester and Liverpool.
“In a lot of ways it is very reassuring.”
Nationally 5,855 high street stores closed during 2017 - an average of 16 a day.
Across the North West more than 500 pulled the shutters down, unable to cope with a steep rise in online shopping, a slowdown in consumer spending and a hike in staff and business rate costs.
Yet here in Preston there were only four fewer businesses operating in January than there were at the start of last year - a meagre 1.44 per cent difference.
While 37 shops closed, another 33 opened, making the city one of the best performers across 28 high streets in the region.
Manchester lost 86 and welcomed just 57. Liverpool saw 65 shut down and 55 start up.
The figures have been produced from research by leading professional services network PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and compiled by the Local Data Company (LDC).
The study showed that across the North West as a whole, high street closures increased by a quarter during 2017. A total of 515 shut up shop and only 340 opened - a net decrease of 175 compared to a fall of 77 in 2016.
Hardest hit were fashion shops, bookmakers and charity shops.
Only two towns in the region saw a net increase - Lytham St Annes (69 up from 65) and Altrincham (134 up from 131).
Blackpool was second only to Manchester in the reduction of stores, with 22 closing and just 11 opening. Burnley lost nine in total from 141 to 132.
Lancaster dropped from 162 to 157 and Accrington 108 to 101.
“2017 was tough for the British retail industry, particularly in the second half of the year,” said Lisa Hooker, consumer markets leader at PwC. “We saw volatility from month to month and across different sectors as wage growth failed to keep up with inflation - forcing many shoppers to think more carefully about their spending habits.
“On top of this many retailers are increasingly feeling the impact of the acceleration of online shopping. Digital offerings are increasingly becoming make or break in areas like fashion, but also for banks, travel agents and travel agents, all of whom closed a significant number of high street stores last year.
“We’ve already seen a tough start to 2018. But it is important to remember the British high street plays a vital role in society and there are elements of growth amongst the headline numbers of decline.”
Zelf Hussain, also from PwC, added: “The end of 2017 was hard for UK retail and we’ve seen it continue into 2018 with the toughest first quarter of the year since the recession.
“We’ve seen some well-known names impacted as they face the perfect storm of issues - a fall in consumer confidence and reduced spending, alongside a number of cost headwinds.”
Preston’s comparative success underlines a study of retailing in Friargate carried out by the Post just three weeks ago.
In it we discovered a revitalised high street which had evolved with the times to remain a busy city centre shopping street.
Mark Whittle, manager of the city’s Business Improvement District (BID), said: “There isn’t a town or city in the country that doesn’t have vacant units.
“But Preston is holding its own and slowly the tide is turning.”
The city’s willingness to remodel itself to meet the needs of a new breed of shopper has been its secret of success, he said.
City centre councillor Drew Gale agreed, saying: “It’s all very positive for Preston. I’m absolutely amazed how it’s changed.
“It’s all about evolution and diversification and that’s exactly what our city centre businesses are doing.”
“There has been massive investment in Preston city centre and people are being attracted in. Hopefully our new market hall will entice even more people.
“We are showing that city centres are not dead - in fact quite the opposite. Vacancy rates are down and anyone who criticises should look at where we were 15 years ago and where we are now.
“It’s fantastic and it’s all getting better.”
The news comes on the same day retail giant Toys R Us announced all remaining stores, including its Preston branch, will close in less than two weeks.
The toy chain collapsed in February and insolvency specialist Moorfields has been selling off the retailer’s stock at knockdown prices.
However, Moorfields said on Thursday that all Toys R Us’s 75 stores would close on April 24, with 2,054 employees set to be made redundant.
A thriving food hub caters for all tastes in the Miller Arcade
Andrew Naylor of Health Shack in the Miller Arcade, Preston - he employees 12 people in total - said: “We opened in August 2016 and we came into the Miller Arcade when there wasn’t as many businesses open as there are now.
“It’s a thriving food hub at the moment. There is Heavenly Dessert, Ice Burg and Baluga kitchen which has been taken over by a catering company.
“We are all offering something different.
“Me and a couple of friends were very keen on healthy eating and going to the gym but we found that there was nowhere in Preston which was healthy and fresh so we got together and we’d seen in a few other cities. There wasn’t anything like this in Preston and I think we hit at the right time. Business is steady, we are still open so that is a good sign. Preston is on the rise at the moment. The Guild Hall’s been regenerated with a couple of shops and a bowling alley. There’s that many different things opening and it can only be good for the city centre.
“There are a lot of places that are starting to open. The markets just had a big influx of cash. It’s got to be bringing people in.
“When we first opened we thought we are in close proximity to three or four big gyms but its not just about the people who go to the gym, its about people who want to eat good, clean, healthy food. It’s not just young people we attract anymore, its a wide range of customers now.
“I think we have just been a niche, something that the people have wanted for a while and I think that set us apart.”
‘The queue is 50 people at a time’
Dean Yates, one of the owners of Roast in Orchard Street, which only opened on Feb 9, said: “We are serving about 6,000 customers a week. At lunch time there 50 people in the queue at any one time.
“We are in a prime location, between the market and St George’s Shopping Centre,
“You can spend a full day in Preston, the markets have just been done, you have the Guild Hall - there’s plenty to do. The car parking is also quite reasonable for a city centre as well.