The number of independent businesses in Bedford town centre is well above the national average (57% versus 35.9%), we have more indies that Cambridge and the perception of Bedford as ‘a town of independents’ is growing.
So today, on American Independence Day, we’re celebrating Independents’ Day and asking business owners, industry experts and campaigners if it’s time for the indies to rise up and reimagine our town centres.
While we may mourn the loss of M&S, TopShop and prepare for other retail behemoths to leave us too, the focus is shifting off the high streets to pockets of smaller, more manageable properties – with lower rent and rates – and like-minded neighbours.
Shopper perception of traditional town centres is changing and off-the-beaten-track footfall is rising, as customers are seeking out unique experiences, excellent customer service and the realisation that buying from independent shops isn’t more expensive.
Helen Patterson, of the Town Centre Champions, recently organised Bedford’s FiverFest celebration of Bedford indies. She said: “Unique, unusual and specialist shops help give a town an identity.
“Buying from a high street chain can serve a purpose and shopping online can be efficient but there’s little joy to be had in shopping from chain stores; it’s much more thrilling to find something really special from an independent shop.
“Some of Bedford’s independent shops are hidden gems which you’ll only find from either exploring or word of mouth.”
Town Centre Champions grew out of the Save our M&S campaign, and we asked some of the Bedford indies what impact the closure had had on their business.
Of the eight businesses we asked, the majority had not felt a negative impact.
In fact, the Gallery café has benefited with groups that previously met in the M&S café, now meeting at the Gallery.
Jan at Charisma in the Arcade commented that customers seem more determined to support the town centre than ever before.
This is encouraging.
Large anchor retailers help to drive footfall. However, the rise in perception of Bedford as a town of independents is growing and this self-fulfilling prophecy is seeing more innovative, collaborative indie businesses opening up, attracting a different demographic.
Blue Glass, Rogan’s Books, Boyds of Bedford, Slide Record Shop, GCH Fishmongers, épanoui, Arlo Arts, Magic Garden, Made in Bedford, Companions at the Gallery are joining their established neighbours – Goldings, Harrison & Simmonds, Maysons, Odells, Baker Bros and more – bringing an energy and diversity to Bedford than many other towns lack.
Landlords are adapting their units to make them more attractive to small businesses or offering more flexible terms.
This can be seen in Bedford Arcade, St Cuthbert’s Arcade and Greyfriars Arcade and has the potential to transform bigger vacant units too.
Paul Carver of Granby Martin who manage the Old Arcade said: “For the last three years we’ve been gradually refurbishing and reconfiguring the shop units to provide smaller accommodation for independent traders not just in the retail sector.
“As well as making smaller units, underused first floor space has now been brought back into use for businesses that work well alongside shops.
“This includes a tattoo studio and make up studio. At present there are four vacant units, three of which are under offer.”
The BBC’s business correspondent, Emma Simpson, recently visited Bedford to report on the closure of M&S. She told us: “So many of our town centres are being buffeted by the huge structural shift underway in retail right now.
“Some places are clearly faring better than others. Bedford is certainly not a town on its knees. It’s still got plenty going for it with a small but thriving number of independent stores.
“But it’s got some big challenges on its hands, not least what will become of the vacant Marks and Spencer store.
“And then there’s Debenhams just across the street. Its future looks very uncertain, too.”
Among the retailers we asked, the rise of online competition was one of their biggest threats and with limited budgets and resources, many indies are unable to maximise their online presence.
NearSt founder, Nick Brackenbury, believes that the advance of technology will allow bricks and mortar shops to compete against online and drive footfall into the centre of towns.
He says: “Technology will level the playing field between the high street and online over the next few years.
“As shoppers, we live our lives through our smartphones and when we search for a product our devices will almost exclusively display online results – even if that product is stocked in a shop across the road.
“As Real-Time Local Inventory data – a single view of exactly which shops stock what – starts to become pervasive, and consumers start to see both offline and online results displayed to them, it will begin to drive significantly more footfall for high street shops.
“Our recent report on High Street Futures indicates the high street could be set for a £9 billion windfall off the back of this.”
Hearteningly, he says, “We believe the high street has an incredibly bright future ahead of it, and will continue to play a central role in all of our lives.”
Paul Panayis, the owner of Maysons, has been trading in Bedford for 30 years and is similarly optimistic.
“Bedford has to play to its strengths,” he says. “As the footfall has changed, so has our product. You’ve got to adapt to survive.
“Not everyone wants the clone shopping experience; our biggest growth is from customers travelling from Cambridge and Milton Keynes.
“We are proud of our excellent customer service and we want all our customers to leave the shop having had an amazing experience, whether they’ve bought something or not.”
Having attracted new brands, including Neil Barratt, Dsquared2, Helmut Lang and APC for next season, Paul’s clearly doing something right.
As part of the Transporting Bedford project, the High Street and St Paul’s Square will see major redevelopment, beginning in Summer 2020.
A spokesperson for Bedford Borough Council told us: “The High Street will be reduced to one lane of traffic, governed by average speed cameras and any unnecessary street furniture removed, creating more space for shoppers and a more welcoming environment, reducing the prominence of cars.
“The High Street and St Paul’s will also be repaved in high quality stone, and the road resurfaced giving the whole area an uplift around the heritage of our historic town centre.
“We are talking to shops and town centre businesses over the summer, after which more details will emerge about this exciting project for our town centre with an exhibition and drop-in planned for the public to find out more before work starts next summer, after the Bedford River Festival 2020.”
The High Street upgrade was generally met with positivity from the retailers we spoke to. Paul Panayis said: “I think it’s a brilliant idea. Lorries shouldn’t be allowed down here except for deliveries.”
Jan from Charisma said: “…if our council goes ahead with making the single lane traffic on the High Street with larger pedestrianised areas, some seating and hopefully lots more beautiful flower and plant displays, that will give a lovely attractive impression of our town centre.”
However, Goldings hold the opposing view. “Leave the High Street alone or close it completely and re-route the traffic. Footfall on the High Street is non-existent as the centre of the town is Harpur Street.”
Future High Streets
We asked what a future town centre could look like and independent retailers feature strongly in the answers.
Gary from GCH Fishmongers even went so far as to predict that, “…large retailers will probably cease to exist apart from convenience formats…vehicles will probably not be allowed.”
Hannah at épanoui said: “I see the rise of the independents and people really re-learning and thriving off the value and importance of our individual and tailored services.
“Regeneration of high streets to move with the times would be a bonus, using closed down shops for entertainment areas, spaces that are multipurpose and serve a wider demographic of the local community.
“I do feel like we will have to take the rough with the smooth though, this won’t happen overnight.
“It will take people thinking outside the box to make this happen but I would like to think that that’s where we are headed because clearly the traditional routes don’t work anymore…”
Increased office space and residential in town centres will mean that retailers will evolve to service their needs, predicts Arlene from ArloArts.
She also says that future town centres would be: “…eco-friendly, focus on renewal, refillable and generally greener.
“Along with the general awareness of being “greener”, reducing plastic usage means that there are going to be new types of businesses being setup.”
“Some of the big stores have been leaving town centres but I feel very positive that smaller independent shops will be opening, making the town a lovely place to come and spend the day,” said Charisma’s Jan.
“I can see town centres going from strength to strength… with the help from councils, landlords and the government.”
The BBC’s Emma Simpson said: “Bedford can’t compete with Rushden Lakes up the road. Like many towns, Bedford needs to think about what it wants to be. There are opportunities.
“CVAs are having a dramatic effect on commercial property values and rents. Shopping centres are an interesting illustration.
“Some councils have been snapping them up in a bid to seize control of an important asset and redevelop their town centres. Many landlords will have to readjust and lower rents.
“Pressing the reset button could allow new and different businesses to move in and flourish.”
This was a concept echoed by Tim Edwards of Beerfly: “Eventually, secondary town centres will be residential and service based hubs offering things you can’t get done online such as haircuts and places to meet people such as coffee shops, restaurants and bars.
“You can already see these trends around the town, but the faster the rents and rates come down in the town centre, the faster these businesses can move more centrally and reinvigorate the towns, before they decay too far and the cost of turning them around/fitting them out becomes too much for less cash rich entrepreneurs to cover.”
We asked the retailers what would make it easier to trade in Bedford. Greater support from the council, rent, rates and parking were mentioned by all of them.
Cllr Henry Vann, the recently appointed portfolio holder for the town centre said: “Since 1st April 2019, the Council has awarded over £800,000 of additional ‘Retail Discount’ to more than 300 eligible businesses with a rateable value of under £51,000.
“In addition, small businesses with a rateable value of under £12,000 are not subject to business rates.”
The council’s existing free parking offer (two hours free ever day at Queen Street car park, two hours free every Saturday in all council-owned car parks and free all day on Sunday) is unlikely to be extended.
Potentially, the High Street transformation could include short-stay parking bays, although future town centres will most likely be car-free spaces with enhanced public transport and cycling infrastructure.
Rising to the challenge
It is clear from talking to Bedford’s independent retailers that they are positive about the future of the town centre, realistic about the challenges and excited about their role in shaping it.
The constant evolution of high streets means that businesses are always adapting to survive. Indies have embraced the change and are collaborating and developing to meet and exceed the needs of their customers.
As the BBC’s Emma Simpson put it: “Pressing the reset button could allow new and different businesses to move in and flourish.”