“Preston is a student city - if there are none around that’s half your business gone.”
Preston’s student population has long proved a powerful economic driver for the city. But with lockdown most of the students are studying from home. Fiona Finch reports on the impact the student exodus has had on three city businesses and Preston Council's hopes for the future.
The mass exodus of students from the centre of Preston during the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown has left vintage clothes sellers Matthew Taylor and Lisa Pickles with a pile of stock and no customers to sell to.
Matthew reckons some 80 per cent of customers to Hollywood Exports on Fox Street comprise city students or those attending college in Blackpool and the Fylde.
He said: “We deal in vintage clothing we import from America. The thing with vintage clothing is the sizes vary so much through generations -(they can) change dramatically. Vintage clothing is something you really want to touch and feel and wear to make sure it’s right for you.”
They do sell online, but say this is not ideal because of the sizing issue.
With no option but to close their city shop during the lockdowns Matthew points out business overheads continue even though sales may not.
He was glad to get a grant of £4,000 to cover some of his losses in January, but points out that the Hollywood Exports shop rental is £5,000.
He said: “We’ve just had to top it up with what we’ve saved - it’s pretty scarey.”
Matthew and partner Lisa also run the Clitheroe based online business The Time Train which specialises in vintage toys, records and other memorabilia.
This has also been hit by the pandemic - both when it comes to selling and to buying new stock, with home visits off the menu. He said: “I’m usually buying every day of the week. In the last 12 months I’ve had four phone calls.”
The couple also operate the upmarket popular mobile refreshment food truck Langden Grill which is located in the Trough of Bowland. This too is closed until Easter.
The saving grace during their difficult year of Covid cutbacks has been baby Annie, who was born in November 2019 and Matthew says they have relished the opportunity to spend more time with her at their Dunsop Bridge home.
He said: “It’s been a really weird year. All three of our businesses have been impacted by lockdown. Annie has been quite a lynchpin for us, getting through the hard times.”
A financial saviour has also been the couple’s decision to extend their takeaway food van operation. Just a few weeks ago ago they reached an agreement with Lancashire County Council to sell refreshments at another pitch - at Spring Wood, Whalley, (classified during the pandemic lockdown as a daily exercise site) on Saturdays and Sundays and have invested in another food truck.
They say this has thrown them a much needed cash lifeline. Matthew said: “It’s only week three but with the same ethos as Langden it’s proving very popular.”
Matthew has a background in catering and went into the industry after leaving Ribblesdale School in Clitheroe. He noted: "When I left school that’s what I fell into. Then antiques kind of overtook that. My bread and butter has been buying and selling..but not this year. Bread and butter has been my bread and butter!”
Matthew is determined to look on the brighter side, noting that, considering the restrictions of lockdown and the impact on their businesses, they are fortunate that where they live and work boasts some of the best scenery in the country.
Such is the reputation of the Langden Grill, where menu specialities include such things as a Bajan Fish Cutter, (a fish sandwich spiced with cheddar and salsa on a toasted brioche bun), TV duo The Hairy Bikers have filmed there.
It’s not Matthew’s only brush with TV stardom. He has been chosen to appear as an expert dealer on forthcoming editions of Dickinson’s Real Deal.
He concluded: “It just goes to show you need more strings to your bow if you’re self employed. Being self-employed we cannot rely on furlough, not that that has changed my outlook. Noone is going to pay me unless I work hard and evolve. It’s that simple. We are lucky that we have the three businesses but the pandemic has pushed us close to breaking point.”
Reduced hours and reduced footfall sum up the sorry state many Preston food outlets have found themselves in during the pandemic.
At CoCo’s soul food restaurant on Friargate it’s take out orders only and last month hours were reduced to 11.30am - 3pm and 5pm - 9pm on Tuesday to Friday and 4pm - 9pm on Saturdays.
The business says it has been forced to close on Mondays too due to lack of custom.
Manager Shireen Gunner said: “We have had to change our opening hours. It (the pandemic) has affected us greatly. We don’t have the footfall any more. Normally it’s four times what we are doing now. We have our sister business up the road The 3 Monkeys(on Adelphi Street) just keeping afloat, just keeping the doors open at the moment.”
It’s not just the lack of students, but local office workers too which has hit the business, with so many people working from or studying at home.
She said: “We can only pray and hope that they can open eventually and we can all survive and get on. Preston is a student city - if there are none around that’s half your business gone.”
Businesses also note that the continuing roadworks/Adelphi redevelopment project have had a negative impact on trade.
At Call Cabin on Adelphi Street, a retail and repair shop for mobile phones, tablets and laptops, assistant Sam Patel was keen to stress they are still open for repairs. He said the business serves a community wider than the local student population - with many students now arriving at university having already purchased phones and computers. He said: “There are a few students come and buy laptops and things like that.Obviously it’s affected us quite badly at the moment because of the virus and roadworks everywhere in the area. It’s just a combination of different things. We are open for repairs and we are trying to sell everything online. It’s either click and collect or delivery.”
Preston City Council acknowledges the role UCLan plays in the local economy and the devastating impact of Copvid19 on local business. But it has also warned there will be “a slow return to some normality”.
It is estimated UCLan brings millions of pounds to the city and region.
Coun Peter Moss, cabinet member for planning and regulation, said: “The scale of the Covid 19 pandemic has been unprecedented and impacted our lives in so many ways over the past months.The effect on the local economy is no exception, with some industries such as retail and hospitality devastated by local and national lockdowns.”
He continued: “All the students and staff contribute greatly in our local communities and their absence is obviously a huge loss...I know the size of the student economy is considerable in Preston, with the UCLan staff and student population of 38,000 indirectly contributing over £200m to the city and the North West in more recent times.”
Noting UCLan has played: “a major role in the economic, social and cultural vibrancy and development of our city” he predicts that positive impact will make a welcome return.
He said: “As a council we’re working hard with Government and developers in our commitment to the city centre and our vision for the future. Plans are being prepared for the safe re-opening of the city centre, when current restrictions are eased.
“Along with doing all we can to keep everyone safe, we’re providing financial support for businesses through numerous Government grants. I feel this is essential as our slow return to some normality will see the need for these great shops, pubs, restaurants and many independents across the city to remain and, not only survive but thrive with all our continued support and commitment.”
For our companion report on the challenge facing UCLan and the city's students see here** The Lancashire Post is more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription to support our journalism. For unlimited access to Lancashire news and information online, you can subscribe here