Christmas footfall up by 18% as town centre vacancy rates remain below national average


New research has shown that the number of empty shops is reducing throughout the UK, with Bedford having fewer than the national average.

In addition, shoppers are returning to – and favouring – visiting stores alongside their online shopping.

Research by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) found that the overall GB vacancy rate had improved to 13.8%, which was 0.6 percentage points better than the same period last year. This was the fifth consecutive quarter of falling vacancy rates.

Bedford’s vacancy rate was 12.9% with the most visible empty units having been vacated by nationwide chain stores (Debenhams, BHS, Beales, Clarks).

Meanwhile, Bedford’s Harpur Centre vacancy levels (9.6%) are half the national average for shopping centres (18.2%), with new occupiers taking units later this year.

“Due to proactive asset management, renewed interest from businesses and community support, the Harpur Centre boasted reduced vacancy rates post-pandemic,” Centre Manager, Samantha Laycock told the Bedford Independent.

“We have continued to follow the national trend and are currently seeing 9.6% against the reported Q4 BRC shopping centre vacancies of 18.2%.

“We have so much interest in our remaining vacant units and Landlord works to upgrade the premises are already taking place to prepare for new occupiers this year.”

Increase in Christmas footfall

According to the Harpur Centre statistics, footfall in the town centre during the Christmas period was up 18% on last year, with unique events, including the land train and giant Christmas wreath contributing to higher visitor numbers.

“Thanks to the complimentary town centre Christmas events, provided by the Harpur Centre, Bedford Borough Council and Love Bedford (BID) there were reasons to visit the town generally and our in centre, activations pulled the footfall through our doors,” said Sam.

Jane Hutcheson of Hay Lane Flowers with the magnificent four-metre festive wreath

“Activity in the town centre meant that Small Business Saturday (3 December) was our busiest day in December,” said BedfordBID’s Christina Rowe.

“The peak hour over the period was 11am on Saturday 10 December, which coincided with the launch of the BedfordBID land train.”

Many of Bedford’s independent businesses recorded their best trading days ever over December 2022.

At the Arc on Howard Street, sales over December were up 11% on last year, with the shop also having their best ever trading day throughout the festive period. At The Store on St Cuthbert’s Street, the Christmas build-up was slower, but December performance was higher than 2021.

Emma Foley owner Anorak Edwardian Arcade Bedford Image Emma Foley
Emma Foley owner Anorak in the Edwardian Arcade, Bedford. Image: Emma Foley

Emma Foley, owner of womenswear shop, Anorak, in the Arcade, recorded her best day of trading ever on 3 December, saying that footfall was noticeably higher than normal.

“We saw an increase in Christmas sales compared to previous years,” said Jo Lawday, co-owner of Boutique Planet, also in the Edwardian Arcade. “Christmas was really good for us and we had a good year overall.”

Dreamwear, which relocated from The Broadway to the former Waterstones building on Silver Street saw their sales rocket by 50% on the previous year.

“Since moving to the town centre our footfall has doubled and in some cases tripled during weekends and school holidays,” said Dreamear owner, Tauseef Nawaz.

The new Dreamwear store on Silver Street

“We have found both the local community and those from out of Bedford have visited the store, especially to see, touch and try on the products in person – something they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do if shopping online.

“Our click-and-collect service has also driven footfall.”

“Consumer confidence expected to return”

Responding to their findings, the BRC’s chief executive, Helen Dickinson OBE said that the number of empty stores reduced in the final quarter of 2022, vacancy rates have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

“The first half of 2023 will likely be yet another challenging time for retailers and their customers. There are few signs that retailers’ input costs will ease, putting further pressure on margins, and making businesses think twice on how much investment to make,” said Helen,

“However, the situation should improve in the second half of the year, as inflationary pressures begin to ease and consumer confidence is expected to return.”

“Less than 1% vacancy rate in council-owned properties”

With the fourth lowest number of vacant units among a list of comparable towns, Cllr Henry Vann, portfolio holder for the town centre, is pleased that Bedford is bucking the trend.

“We continue to look at how we can fill available commercial space with exciting new opportunities for residents and visitors and we know that shops fill quickly where we have active landlords such as St Cuthbert’s Arcade, the Edwardian Arcade, the Harpur Centre and also in council-owned property, where our vacancy rate is less than one percent,” he said.