Well, another one bites the dust then!
With the news of the collapse of the HMV owner’s rescue attempt of Wilko we stand in front of yet another empty space in our ever-diminished town centre and ask ourselves “what on earth is going to fill that massive space?” Not a one stop Wedding Shop, that’s for sure!
As the biannual “Bedford Town Centre is rubbish” and “there’s nothing left…” discussion whips up on social media, those of us with a business to run in the town centre are left to pick up the pieces and wonder how we can continue to attract people into a town with no familiar, national chain shops and how long can we continue to provide our, sometimes niche, services to customers if the basic stuff isn’t here anymore?
I run Beerfly, a “craft beer” shop very much in the aforementioned niche category, catering to a pretty random collection of posh alcoholics, people with too much time on their hands or, more genuinely, those who enjoy trying new things and learning about new beers, styles
Experiential retail, the ability to try, touch and feel things before making the final purchase (in other words we offer tabs), is at the heart of what we do, think an Apple Shop with beer!
But the truth is that a large proportion of my business is made up of people who have popped into town for something else. A bit of food from Lidl, a haircut at one of the town’s barbers, some sausages from Lingers or, of course, a tin of paint from Wilko’s.
On their way back home, they pop in for a quick 1/3 pint (we serve in odd measures cos we’re crazy!) of a hazy pale and if I’m very lucky they may pick up a few cans to take home with them too.
But we’re fast running out of any of the core of national chains that we know and love. From school kids’ favourite nicking spot, Woolworths through BHS, to Marks and Spencer and Debenhams, we’ve seen all the familiar retail brands in our town close.
It’s not just Bedford, it’s happened across the country and it’s indicative of a far wider series of issues, from the online shopping bonanza, that Amazon et al are able to provide basically tax-free, to poor mismanagement of these large stores from supposed professionals, and pure greed on the part of their shareholders.
Wilko paid out a total of £77 million to their owners and former shareholders in the decade before its collapse, they lost £39m last year and still paid out £3m (I don’t even know how that works, my basic understanding is you can’t pay dividends unless you make a profit, or at least that there’s a tax cost associated with doing it?)
In the end we all suffer, because there’s something healthy, convenient and enjoyable about a mooch round the shops.
Empty shops increase the rate of crime and anti-social behaviour in an area and who’s going to visit a town with no town centre shopping to speak of, irrespective of the free parking provided?
Many of Bedford’s very best gems are located on the outskirts of the main town, for obvious reasons, such as low rental costs and low rateable values, meaning many pay no business rates at all (myself included) and yet it falls to us to try and convince people to keep coming into town and spending.
So here goes, don’t be a stranger to our town, walk through the Old Arcade, check out St. Cuthbert’s Street (pop in for a quick beer) and Mill Street, wander along Castle Road. But do try to pop in, it’s good for the human in us, and it keeps our little shops going and you know what, there’s far more of them than you might realise if you come and have a look.
by Tim Edwards
owner of Beerfly