Bedford Town Centre prepares for post-coronavirus ‘new normal’

Deserted Bedford Town Centre
Bedford Town Centre Image: Don Weerasirie

As some elements of lockdown are eased, businesses in Bedford are beginning to cautiously contemplate the ‘new normal’ and what a safe and open town centre could look like.

They are also facing the irreversible economic impact that the coronavirus pandemic will leave.

The Bank of England warms the UK economy could shrink by 14% and predicts unemployment will soar by next Spring, heralding the deepest recession in modern history.

As many of us re-emerge onto Silver Street, the loss of River Island and Beales will be a stark reminder that years of austerity, and the rise of online shopping, have already signalled the death knell for many traditional retailers.

The economic after-effects of this pandemic are hard to predict, but as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already declared we are in recession, deeper ramifications are sure to follow.

62% of Bedford town centre’s businesses are independent, a sector that is more agile than bigger, more established players and many of our indie shopkeepers have adapted their businesses to continue trading during lockdown.

Mary Portas, writing in her newsletter, the Reset, said, “Now is a time for big brands to learn from the small, the nimble, the innovative and in particular how these small businesses are becoming central to their communities.

“… over a third of Brits intend to use local independent stores more when lockdown ends.

“These places understand their role as a ‘relationshop’ – they have the power to both physically service an existing local community, and emotively create a new sense of community that exists beyond bricks and mortar.

“This is about finding your people, sharing values and a combined purpose in a way that transcends geography.”

So how are Bedford’s indie retailers adapting?

Peter Budek at Eagle Bookshop has taken a unique approach to shifting their business online, in keeping with the unique nature of their business.

“It’s still early days and it’s a rather unlikely plan which we have adopted but it is actually going very well.

“We are doing as much as we can to bring the browsing experience to people’s screens and mobiles.

“We are an unusual kind of business, because we have tens of thousands of unique product lines and to catalogue each one would be impossible.

“But by photographing every shelf of books in the logical arrangement of their order in the shop, we can invite enquiries, and in response to these we give more details and prices etc.

“So far, we have covered about half the shop and the sales and interest have been most encouraging.

“What makes it especially nice is that in presenting the books in their various rooms in the shop we are also reinforcing the message that this will be lovely place to visit once the current crisis is over – we are enhancing rather than diminishing our ‘real shop’ appeal.”

GCH Fishmongers have been sharing their daily displays with customers on social media

Gary Hooper, owner of GCH Fishmongers told the Bedford Independent, “Our business has changed massively during the current crisis.

“We have gone from supplying over 50 restaurants and pubs to virtually none, a couple have diversified but not selling anywhere near the volume they were. This meant that overnight we lost 60% of our trade.

“We developed quite quickly an online shop and now do home deliveries, that with the increased footfall in the shop has meant we have been able to keep going.

“The economic impact is going to last for generations. We are going to be paying for this for the rest of my life and probably my children’s too.”

Emma Foley, owner of Anorak in the old Arcade has utilised her social media channels to show the new season’s stock and has been hand delivering to customers so they can ‘try before they buy.’

She’s also been part of a small group of business owners who have held Zoom meetings with the Mayor and town centre portfolio holder, Henry Vann.

“The situation has pushed me to think in new directions and I’ve got some exciting things in the pipeline,” she told the Bedford Independent.

“I do feel this situation will encourage residents to shop locally. Not only because it’s safer and easier but because there is support for Bedford business.”

Emma at Anorak – lockdown living room, model’s own

Boutique Plant owners Nick Walker and Jo Lawday said that the council could implement measures to help the public adhere to guidelines.

“[The Council could] potentially set walking routes and section off areas to meet social distancing requirements and use the press and radio to advertise this.

“Traffic wardens could be more lenient to allow for curb side drop off etc for people who are worried to get out of their car, also readily available PPE for the vulnerable.”

Many physical shops have been forced to move much of their business online, including The Store.

Owner, Roasanna Heasman said, “Thanks to Ben Luckman, a local marketing and web guy, he helped me get my website up to scratch to be able to open an online shop to be able to offer a click-and-collect service to help customers still shop without having to come into The Store. This allowed minimal contact with customers.

Rosanna Heasman The Store
Rosanna Heasman at The Store

“I’ll probably be seeing the effects of this throughout my life time. But I’m confident this is the boost local indie retailers needed and people will realise how crucial it is to spend locally and support our towns and cities.”

Beerfly’s Tim Edwards said, “The next 24 months could be the hardest in the post war period, probably worse than the effects of the financial crash.

“Put it this way, I’m more worried about 2021 than I am about 2020 and I’ve basically been closed for two months this year.

“I hope I’m wrong, for the sake of my business and many others in the town, but I just can’t see how there isn’t going to be mass job losses, recession (probably a depression) and a sustained period of tough trading.

“In my view the sooner we can move in the direction of some sort of normality, get people working, get people buying and moving about, the better the chance of avoiding long-term economic harm, but of course, this view has to be balanced with the health impacts and the potential for more lives being lost.”

Bedford’s Conservative Councillors have outlined measures to ensure that Bedford Council protects the health of all town visitors whilst also helping businesses ensure they can reopen safely and get moving again.

These include:

  • Super cleansing of public spaces including car park lifts and doors, public toilets, library lifts and street furniture
  • Restaurants and cafes to be given greater access to public spaces for tables and chairs
  • More cycle parking to encourage visitors back to town
  • Stalls at Bedford Market should be free for at least the next three months
  • Free parking should be increased.
The proposed town centre app would help businesses connect with more customers and enable more shops to offer online sales

They have also suggested developing a ‘town centre app’ to create a one-stop shop to buy from local shops and explore local businesses.

Conservative Spokesperson for the Town Centre, Cllr Phillippa Martin-Moran-Bryant, said, “The Council needs also to think sensitively and strike the right balance.

“Whilst people will be pleased to be out of lockdown when the time comes, we must consider those who have died and those who have so bravely worked through this to look after us all – the NHS, carers, posties, shop workers – the list goes on.

“I believe that Bedford Council needs to organise an outdoor display of local art where we invite residents to say thank you, leave tributes and safely display their work for others to see.”

Responding to the suggestions, Cllr Henry Vann, Portfolio Holder for Town Centres said, “People are rightly staying at home to slow the spread of the virus.

“We are very aware of the challenge facing town centres across the country and we are already working with local businesses, including our wonderful independents, our partners at Love Bedford, and the Town Deal Board, to complete our plans for the re-opening of the town centre.

“We have already increased cleaning to give people confidence that it is safe to visit essential stores in line with Government guidelines.

“We have also introduced social distancing measures at our successful markets, which have remained open for sale of food and are providing an essential service to many residents at this time.

Bedford Market
Bedford Market has remained open during lockdown. La Piazza has recently reopened for takeaways

“We will be supplying posters to local businesses, and putting up signage and banners to remind people to socially distance when they visit our safe, welcoming town.

“It is worth also noting that throughout this time we have been working to support our town centre and local businesses, with over £23million issued in business support grants so far.

Summarising, Mary Portas, interviewed in The Guardian, said: “I do think that what will come out of this is memories of the businesses that helped us through it… and I think those memories will shape our decisions in the future.

“That support you have for businesses that were there when you needed them, and were behaving well … that emotion goes deep.

“And, you know, some big players have not been there, so it’s going to be very interesting.”