Increase of independent shops in Bedford highlighted by BBC Radio 4 investigation

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The rise in the number of independent shops in Bedford town centre has been highlighted in an investigation by BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme.

Journalist Sam Fenwick has tracked the changing face of High Streets and town centres across the UK over the last 10 years for Radio 4 and visited Bedford to see what difference a decade, a recession, the rise of internet shopping and a global pandemic have made to town centres.

Specifically, Sam has been tracking the 12 ‘Portas Pilot towns’ that were selected in 2012 to receive government funding. Bedford was among the 12 chosen and received £51,000 to trial projects to revitalise the town centre.

Portas Pilot projects in Bedfords included grants to improve shop fronts, business mentoring, social media training and a pop-up shop that spawned at least three new shops, Bedford Flea market, live music, food and record shop events and helped inspire the launch of the Bedford Independent.

Alan Cooley organised the first BedPop Record Shop at 68 High Street as part of the Portas Pilot project

Convenience stores and delicatessens

Research by Radio 4’s You and Yours programme showed the biggest difference in Bedford is the growth of independent convenience stores, from Polish supermarkets to Italian delicatessens, demonstrating how the town’s diversity has contributed to these new opportunities.

In 2011 there were three convenience stores on Midland Road and this year, that number has increased to eight.

“Our data shows that nearly three-quarters of shops in Bedford are independent,” said Sam.

“It also shows that the biggest area of growth in Bedford is food stores. The number has doubled in the last 10 years.”

“We now have Caribbean, Italian, Scottish, Irish and Eastern European stores in Bedford,” said Councillor Henry Vann, portfolio holder for town centres.

“Montego’s Food Market, Cibo and My Nana’s Kitchen are great examples of new businesses that have opened in the last couple of years, offering unique products and encouraging customers into the town centre.”

Best Pol on Howard Street

The You and Yours investigation found that over the last decade, successful independent businesses have adapted to the changing retail landscape, including increasing opening hours, implementing online shopping and creating reasons for people to visit in person.

However, despite a high number of independent retailers opening, it’s disproportionate to the number of large chain stores that have closed throughout the UK.

According to the Local Data Company, figures quoted by You and Yours revealed that 8,500 chain stores have closed over the last year. In that same period, 800 independent businesses have opened.

One such business in Bedford is Caution Vintage, which launched in 2018 and until recently, operated exclusively online.

Caution Vintage at the Harpur Centre

After being contacted by the Bedford Flea team, Liam and Alex took a pitch at this year’s markets and their popularity grew.

“The Bedford Flea market gave us the chance to try out a retail location in Bedford which was an invaluable experience – a massive thank you to the Bedford Flea ladies for finding us!” said Liam.

“It proved that Bedford wanted a place to buy vintage clothes and really opened our eyes to how well a shop could perform.

“Once the summer markets were over we knew we had to try and open a shop over Christmas. Thankfully the Harpur Centre believed in us enough to rent us Unit 13 until January and the response has been better than we ever hoped.”

Ten years ago, this was exactly the evolution of retail that Mary Portas was advising in her High Street recommendations and something that has been quietly continuing ever since in Bedford through pop-ups, collaborative events and the creativity and ambition of Bedford businesses.

Caution Vintage was inspired by Alex and Liam’s mutual interest in sustainable retro clothing – in saving products from landfill.

“We both saw it as a more ethical future for the fashion industry, in opposition to Fast Fashion (buying cheap & throwing away quickly).

“Each is a morsel of history, and getting to find each item’s new owner is one of the coolest things we get to do. We pair individual garments with individual people.”

Their pop up is only open until early January, but the boys already have their sights set on opening a permanent shop in Bedford and building their place in the small business community in the town.

And they already have celebrity backing, in the form of Alfie Templeman (Liam’s brother plays drums in Alfie’s band).

Just back for his US tour, Alfie popped into the shop to give his support to the team.

Alfie Templeman and Liam at his recent visit to the store

“Caution’s shop not only has such a lovely atmosphere but they also really care about the ethical side of their clothes, which is a rarity nowadays,” he told the Bedford Independent.

“There’s something for everyone in that store, it’s truly worth popping in. You’ll come out with a massive smile on your face.”

Speaking to Liam it’s clear the team have ambitious plans and still pinching themselves about how quickly they’ve grown.

“From starting a simple side hustle, to owning our own shop in our hometown, pairing the people we live around with pieces we are passionate about feels incredible,” said Liam.

“We want to be a big part of local events, and collaborate more with creatives from around Bedford.

“It’s about making our journey a part of the town’s next steps too.”

You can listen to the You and Yours broadcast on BBC Sounds here. Bedford is discussed from 23 minutes.

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