Consumer editor Emma McKinney returns to the city’s Great Western Arcade less than a year on from revealing the struggles of independent retailers and a grim picture of vacant units.
Last year things were looking grim for the owners of one of Birmingham’s oldest shopping arcades.
More than a dozen of Great Western Arcade’s units were empty as the recession took its grip, forcing struggling independents to fold.
Some blamed owners Aviva Investors for hiking up rents and said they feared the arcade, off Colmore Row in the city centre, would be empty within two years.
But now the Victorian arcade, which dates back to 1875, is experiencing a renaissance as specialist retailers have come knocking on the door wanting to open up shop.
Bosses say the change of fortunes has been helped not only by a £250,000 face-lift to restore the centre to its former historic glory, but also innovative ways of attracting new retailers – including offering some companies a three-month lease for £1.
Aviva says it is an “experimental approach” and is part of an on-going strategy to try and attract more firms, giving them a chance to “suck it and see” if the arcade suits their businesses, with a view to them then signing a long-term lease.
One firm that has grabbed the offer with both hands is bespoke tailors Norton & Townsend, which had previously being operating as a “travelling shop”, going direct to the customer rather than having a shop front.
The rock-bottom rent deal meant the firm finally had a chance to get a foothold in a top city centre location.
“The malaise of the high street has actually opened up a new dimension for us, giving us the opportunity to raise the profile of our brand,” says chief executive Austen Pickles. “We’re delighted to be in a beautifully historic part of Birmingham and indebted to the landlord for giving us an opportunity to see whether this is viable in the long term.
“We’ve only been open a matter of weeks and already we have been bowled over by the level of support we have received.”
And the arcade is preparing to welcome several more new tenants, as well as having existing tenants expand or renew their leases – something which has been a long time coming, according to centre manager Gay Faulkner.
“Being opposite Snow Hill train station and a link between the business and retail sections of the city, we are in an excellent position and attract an enviable footfall, yet the challenge we have had has always been to stop people on their way through,” she says. “The type of retailers which perform well in the arcade are those who spot the chance to offer something new which gels with other retailers here but also takes advantage of our location in the heart of the city.
“It has taken time but slowly the arcade has built up a hub of tenants which offer different things but are ultimately complementary and so will appeal to a similar type of customer.
“By continuing to attract appealing and complementary groups of tenants we can continue to build our ideal retail profile and give shoppers more reasons to spend longer in the arcade.”
Later this summer connoisseur whisky store Glenkeir, will open a shop in the arcade which Ms Faulkner believes will complement existing speciality food and drink stores such as traditional confectioners Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe; luxury chocolaterie Chouchoute; boutique bakery The Bread Collection and fine foods retailer Anderson & Hill.
She also welcomed the recent opening of new silver jeweller Ethos and said watch firm Past Times is also on its way, adding to existing gift and accessory stores such as The Pen Shop, Parchment and Funky Accessories.
A big success story for the arcade has been the expansion of Benjamin Ryan Hair, a tenant for the last five years, which has recently moved to a larger unit quadrupling the salon’s size and giving the company the chance to offer beauty and holistic treatments in addition to its existing hair styling services.
Claudia Santillo, operations director at the business, says: “The new salon is a dream come true for the team, which has worked tirelessly to ensure the salon represents our vision.
“We think being situated in a beautiful listed building within the Great Western Arcade, with a design which stems from an eclectic mix of old and new offers consumers something different and will prove to be a strong draw to those visiting the centre.”
With the vast majority of the arcade’s tenants being independent retailers, both tenants and owners alike hope it will draw in new shoppers.
“We may be old-fashioned in our approach but our customers have a real affection for the independents, particularly as this sector bore the brunt of the recession,” adds Norton & Townsend’s Mr Pickles.
“Five years ago the high street was full of the same faces, it didn’t matter where you went in the country, everywhere looked the same. Now, with the return of the independents, customers will have so much choice.”
Jonathan Cheetham, chairman of Retail Birmingham, a not-for-profit company set up four years ago to promote the city’s 1,000 shops, bars and restaurants, says: “Birmingham has justly gained an international reputation as a leading shopping destination and we recognise the importance of the city’s independent offer and the part that such retailers play in creating a unique and vibrant shopping experience for its visitors.
“As an organisation at the heart of nurturing and promoting the retail offer within the city, we will continue to support the valuable initiatives such as those adopted by Great Western Arcade to attract such retailers, whilst also encouraging shoppers and visitors alike to explore and enjoy the vast range of hidden gems we have to offer here.”