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Visitor boost for shopping centres despite retail gloom and job losses

By Megan Archer | Birmingham | Business | Published:

Shopping centres today revealed they are seeing rising numbers returning to stores, offering hope on another black day for retail.

Ishmael Brown, 25, from Wolverhampton, and Jaseera Douglas, 25, from Birmingham

Footfall at major centres in the region has shown a “steady increase” since reopening fully in June 15.

Managers say they have been surprised and encouraged by the numbers.

It comes as John Lewis dropped the bombshell that it was closing its flagship Grand Central store in Birmingham, a move condemned by West Midlands Mayor and former store chain boss Andy Street as a “dreadful mistake”.

Boots also revealed it was shedding 4,000 jobs.

John Lewis' store in Grand Central is closing in a blow to the city

Precincts across the West Midlands today declined to give specific numbers. They spoke of increased numbers, although footfall remains well down on pre-coronavirus trade.

There has, however, been a steady rise in footfall, with bosses saying it will only grow faster in the weeks to come.

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intu, the company that runs Merry Hill shopping centre in Dudley, collapsed into administration last month, but managers have said they are still seeing more shoppers at the centre.

Rachael Jackson, general manager at intu Merry Hill, said: “We’ve seen a healthy increase in footfall at intu Merry Hill since the reopening of non-essential retail and our visitors have been telling us that they are excited to be back shopping again.

“Brands like Primark, Next and JD Sports have all proven popular with a regular flow of shoppers and last weekend we also welcomed a new addition to the centre, with independent British fashion store Apricot opening. Apricot now joins 76 per cent of retailers at the centre who have already reopened following the easing of coronavirus lockdown measures.

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Merry Hill Shopping Centre - picture by Shaun Fellows

“We are seeing shoppers coming to the centre on specific shopping missions, determined to spend money in their favourite shops and many stores have told us that their basket sizes are up on last year.

“People who are visiting us feel safe with the measures we have in place and we’ll continue to do everything we can to make sure the centre is a safe place to visit and work. As more brands re-open over the next few weeks, we expect our visitor numbers to continue to grow.”

Shopping centres were given Government permission to reopen on Monday, June 15, with strict social distancing measures in place. Many have put in place new hand sanitiser stations, hygiene screens, and one-way systems to keep staff and shoppers safe.

Steve Burr, area centre manager for New Square shopping centre in West Bromwich said: “We’ve been really pleased how positively the public have embraced New Square’s new social distancing measures. Footfall is steadily growing and we’re anticipating this to only keep growing over the coming weeks and months.

New Square shopping centre in West Bromwich

"People have been so excited so have the chance to get back to visit us that they’re more than happy to stick to social distancing measures in order to enjoy a shopping trip. I think that most people have already adapted."

Melvin Glasby, centre manager at the Saddlers in Walsall added: “Footfall has been gradually increasing each week and we are now operating around the 50 per cent mark compared to this time in 2019 as are many other centres. We have had a positive reception from the local community and we are also pleased to report that our agents have completed a letting with a new retailer during lockdown.”

The Saddlers Centre in Walsall

Bosses at the Mander Centre in Wolverhampton have reported a positive response to the reopening, while managers at intu Merry Hill – which collapsed into administration last month – also said they had seen a “healthy increase” in footfall.

A spokesman for the city centre shopping destination said: “We have worked hard to create an environment that we hope makes our customers feel as safe and comfortable as possible. We have been very pleased with the response”.

And Stafford Guildhall centre manager George Demetriou said: “Footfall has certainly increased from the first week. People are coming out but there’s still trepidation, it’s not back to what it was but footfall is increasing on a week by week basis. We’re staying confident, we’re just trying to make it as safe as possible for people to come back and enjoy the experience.”

The announcements by John Lewis and Boots show the extent of the challenge facing retail.

Mr Street said he intended to make the case to John Lewis that it must keep hold of its Grand Central store. He said Birmingham had higher footfall than most cities and that John Lewis was throwing away a “great opportunity”.

Shoppers delighted to be back, but admit being wary

“When restrictions lifted and things started to go back to normal, we all wanted to come out and go out to the shops. But if you look around, there is still that part of you that is wary and wants to rush back home.”

It is a common comment among shoppers – delighted to be back, but with a tinge of concern too.

It has been almost a month since shopping centres were given the go-ahead to reopen fully.

Many in our region today spoke optimistically of a renewal, with people getting into a new routine and browsing whilst being aware of the ongoing threat of coronavirus.

Hand sanitiser, screens, queues and one-way systems all form part of the ‘new normal’ that customers face when visiting the high street, but most walking around Wolverhampton’s Mander Centre are just glad to be able to get back to the shops.

Ishmael Brown, 25, from Heath Town, hospitality worker, said: “I feel safe coming into the shopping centre, all of the shops have the hand sanitiser in place. It makes me feel reassured.”

Jaseera Douglas, 25, from Birmingham, who works at the NEC, added: “I’ve been wearing my mask because I get the train, I do feel a bit uncomfortable but it is spaced out. It’s better shopping here than Birmingham because it is a lot less busy, everything here is more spaced out.”

Cameron Lilly, 16, and Alivia Lilly, 15, from Coseley

Cameron Lilly, 16, from Coseley, who has just resumed his job as a waiter, said: “It’s great to be out and things going back to normal, I’d rather come to Wolverhampton than Merry Hill because I’m more familiar with it. I feel safe walking around, people are social distancing. This is the first time I’ve been to shops since they reopened, I’ve just started work again and I’m glad to be back.”

Jill Northway, 77, from Tettenhall, said: “I’ve been taking my dog for a walk each morning to Tettenhall on the green, my husband is unwell so I have to go out to do the shopping. I’ve managed it, but at times it has been difficult especially with heavy things, but my daughter – who works in a care home – has been good, we’ve been careful when she has visited.

“I do feel safe here, businesses are being very responsible, tables here are being wiped down after each customer, there is sanitiser available and in Dudley Street it is well separated.”

Shopper Jill Northway from Tettenhall

A number of people still feel wary, despite a number of precautions in place to protect public health and the reduced footfall is concerning for businesses.

Mandeep Singh, 35, from Blakenhall, owner of The Big Phone Store in the Mander Centre, said: “I started here in October, we reopened on June 15, but it is not busy, there is no one in the centre compared to what it was like before.”

Mulakh Raj, 57, from Bilston, said: “I’ve been out once or twice since restrictions lifted, things aren’t too bad and it is a bit quiet, there are still some stock issues. We all wanted to come out and go to the shops. But if you look around, there is still that part of you that is wary and wants to rush back home.”

For some visitors their trip to the city centre shops is their first outing since restrictions eased.

Mohammad Karm, a barber from Whitmore Reans, said: “This is the first time my daughter has been out since lockdown. It is complicated at the moment, it’s not like before you have to stand in the queue for things and it is a little bit scary still, we are still wary. Supermarkets, and food places are doing good but other businesses are still quiet.”

Mohammad Karm, Aaliya Ben and Shanga Ahmed from Wolverhampton

Not everyone is happy with what seems to be the ‘new normal’ and are sceptical about the measures in place.

Monji Singh, 49, an actor from Oxley, said: “It is abysmal, I’ve been out and about getting my exercise daily but I’m not doing the mask thing.

“We are all in the same boat – no one knows what’s going on so we are forcing smiles. Coming back into town feels like a bit of normality but it’s not. It won’t go back to normal, we’re clawing for crumbs of what we used to have. I don’t feel scared, I feel annoyed and frustrated because we are being restricted and people’s anxieties are building.”

Megan Archer

By Megan Archer
Chief Reporter - @MeganA_Star

Chief Reporter with the Express & Star. Give me a call on 01902 319363 or email megan.archer@expressandstar.co.uk.

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