Getting back to business

Words by:
Glynis Fox
Featured in:
July 2020

Branches of national stores and independents are busy breathing fresh vitality into Lincoln’s city centre and uphill areas as the coronavirus lockdown continues to ease, finds Glynis Fox.

Lincoln retailers have given returning shoppers a warm welcome after re-opening their doors and putting in place safety measures to reassure people it is safe to browse and buy.

And this month those businesses already open are expected to be joined by coffee shops (some of which have already been offering takeaways) and tea rooms. Others could soon follow during what is still a continually evolving situation.

Sadly the lockdown has forced the postponement or cancellation of numerous events and left the hospitality sector in particular waiting for the Government to allow it to return to some sort of normality.

Lincoln Business Improvement Group (BIG) acted quickly to support its 800 levy payers, with daily mailshots keeping them updated on Government announcements, grants and loan schemes, courses, webinars and other practical help – and it is still hard at work supporting businesses today.

Lincoln BIG (with assistance from the City of Lincoln Council) has also carried out a two-part residents’ survey. The first part asked respondents what they had missed most about coming into town and what they wanted to see in the future. Most said they really missed going out for a meal, swiftly followed by the chance to go shopping. Forty-five per cent also said they would use contactless payment when shopping in the future and 39 per cent claimed they would spend less time browsing.

As we went to press at least 60 per cent of Lincoln’s Waterside Shopping Centre tenants were expected to re-open their businesses on 15th June, with others keen to follow on their heels. Among the first to commit to re-opening were Goldsmiths, O2, Skechers and Top Shop. As a retailer of essential services, Savers re-opened on 31st May.

Waterside is operating a “one-way” system. Shoppers should enter through the mall’s High Street entrance and leave via its Waterfront doors.

Centre manager, Dean Cross said: “We want to reassure people that we have done all we can in order to re-open safely. We know lots of people wanted to resume shopping in the centre and retailers were keen to welcome them. We have followed Government advice and we are confident that it will be a safe and pleasant experience.”

At St Marks Shopping Centre, anchor tenant Debenhams was among the first wave of retailers to welcome back shoppers.

Centre manager, Valerie Johnson said: “St Marks was partially open throughout the lockdown period, with essential stores such as Superdrug and Tesco open as normal. Pizza Hut has also offered a delivery only service. These were all trading within Government guidelines.

“On 1st June they were joined by Sofology, which offered an appointments service and Carpets4Less. Then on 15th June, we had confirmation that Debenhams, The Entertainer, Gap, The Works, Sports Direct and Argos would be open for customers.

“Everyone at St Marks is eager to welcome back customers in a safe environment. We are operating a one-way system to assist with social distancing and there will be designated queuing areas outside each store. The gardens are also open so that people can enjoy some outdoor green space.”

Independent businesses are just as excited about re-opening their doors and getting their tills ringing again.

Carl Jacklin is the proud owner of ladieswear shop Agatha Boutique and Todd’s Menswear, which trade from distinctive premises in the city’s upper High Street. Both stores, which have enjoyed loyal online support, are delighted to have welcomed back personal shoppers, to enjoy “appointment-only” style shopping – although there is a chance to pop in to browse and buy if the store is empty.

Speaking to Lincolnshire Life before we went to press Carl shared how the twin-faceted business had prepared for the return of “bricks and mortar” shopping and why he is upbeat about the longer-term for independent retailers and those with an entrepreneurial spirit.

“I am confident about the future. As an independent business, if we and others can get through the next six to 12 months, our sector could look forward to some great times – particularly with the changing fortunes of national companies,” he said.

“The first few months will be challenging, because of the restriction on how many people shops can let through their doors, combined with the fact that a percentage of people are still very nervous, although in Lincoln and Lincolnshire, we have been more fortunate in not losing as many people as in other parts of the country.”

Carl feels that, in the past, some organisations have given potential visitors the impression that Lincoln is much bigger than it is in reality. He prefers to describe it as a “nice compact city which offers something for everyone.”

Whilst the past two to three months have not been easy for anyone, Mr Jacklin said they have given business owners the breathing space to take a closer look at the way in which they operate.

“We are really proud to be getting down to business again and offering shoppers the chance to browse fresh stock and the latest fashions. Like others, we have had to “reboot” and, in the process, we have decided to slightly reduce our opening hours because it’s not actually necessary to open seven days a week,” added Carl.

Lincoln BIG chief executive, Sarah Loftus said: “We are delighted to see the gradual revival of city businesses. We share their enthusiasm and we pledge our ongoing support.

“As part of a wide package of assistance, we have provided our levy payers with social distancing posters, the opportunity to borrow “queue ends” A-Boards, supplied bottles of hand sanitiser, yellow anti-slip tape for the front of shop units and re-usable face masks for people using our Lincoln BIG bus passes.

“We are delighted to confirm that city workers who have cancelled their Lincoln BIG bus and car parking passes, will not be charged a fee to rejoin these schemes.”

Shopkeepers, who have been offered special city centre patrol services and vouchers towards premises security cameras have also had their shop security radio scheme rental waived for six months.

Lincoln BIG’s long-awaited Lincoln Imp Trail promises to be even more exciting than at first anticipated – thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Business Improvement Group may have been forced to postpone the Trail in its original format, but the result could be a triple helping of great news!

People can look forward to having much more fun thanks to an extra Imp initiative, Lincoln is promised more fantastic exposure than expected and, ultimately, the main Trail could raise much more money for charity than at first anticipated.

Lincoln BIG chief executive, Sarah Loftus said: “It was the need for social distancing that led to the postponement of the original Trail, but members of BIG’s team put their thinking caps on and this year we’ve decided to run a fun initiative called ‘Imp on the Shelf’.

“We’re keeping the details under wraps at the moment, so watch this space, but we will definitely be keeping our Imps in the limelight, with the help of some mini Imps which will appear in time for Christmas!”

Sarah added: “During this summer, the sponsors of our 30 full-sized Imps will also be able to take them on tour – but they won’t be allowed to leave the country. That’s because the main Trail has simply been put back until 2021.

“An exact start date for 2021 hasn’t been agreed yet, but the Trail will run over a significant period, including the summer holidays. All 30 main Trail Imps and five Community Imps will be on display, together with the Education Imps decorated by schools across the county and managed by our Education Partner, EBP.”

A full Imp Trail leaflet will be available, with a children’s competition. An exciting new interactive app will be launched, bringing new features and engagement opportunities, and souvenirs, merchandise and an auction catalogue are also planned.

A farewell to the Imps event will take place in mid-September before the bumper auction on Lincolnshire Day, 1st October 2021. It will raise funds for charity partner St Barnabas.

The coronavirus effect has also led Lincoln BIG to cancel this year’s Bailgate Busking Festival, Lincoln by the Sea (popularly known as The Beach), 1940s Weekend and the traditional Morris Dancing Festival.

Events due to take place later in the year will be reviewed in mid-September, in line with Government guidelines.

Surveying Lincoln residents about what they have missed through being unable to visit city businesses and leisure facilities during the lockdown – and asking what they want to see in the future – has been a valuable exercise.

Their answers will inform a new Recovery Plan for Lincoln’s Economy, which is being led by Lincoln BIG, Visit Lincoln and the City of Lincoln Council – supported by major city stakeholders. The three-phase – but highly fluid plan – is designed to be flexible and respond to the Government’s ongoing decisions about easing coronavirus restrictions.

The two-part survey revealed that people really missed going out for meals and shopping and their preference for using contactless payments. In future, they want to see cleaner public areas, accessible hand sanitisers, more outdoor seating and have easier access to public toilets with baby-changing facilities.

Lincoln BIG chief executive, Sarah Loftus said: “Recovery Plan partners are working under the banner of Stronger Together. Taking a phased approach is key – no-one knows exactly what is going to happen or when.”

The first phase is underway and focusing on reassuring people that it is safe to use public transport and visit Lincoln’s shops.

Phase 2 (4th July to December) will focus on the easing of the hospitality and leisure sector lockdown and highlight which businesses are up and running again. The position will be promoted within Lincoln’s catchment area with a key message saying: ‘We are open again, so come and see us’.

Phase 3 (January 2021) will involve a more pro-active approach, with parties working hard to bring back events and festivals and encourage a lively evening economy, with a strong message saying: ‘We are open and safe’.

Re-purposed High Streets are today one step nearer, according to a Lincoln businessman.

Banks Long & Co managing director, Tim Bradford, says city and town centres are poised for a major shake up as the heady days of all-out consumerism are superseded to meet people’s demand for a more diverse and exciting shopping and visitor experience.

But Mr Bradford believes the ‘new normal’, post-Covid-19, will produce good opportunities for businesses which are prepared to adapt.

It is only a few months since he wrote about structural changes in town and city retail property markets, comparing those movements to the industrial revolution in Victorian times.

In a nutshell, Tim says 2019 was the year of the Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA), when Lincoln and other UK destinations lost many well-known retail names from the High Street. Now retailers are being challenged by an emerging ‘new normal’ where the traditional shopper is looking for much more.

“Sadly, 2020 will be remembered for Covid-19. Within retail, the impact of the lockdown will bring changes to this sector which will reshape the way town centres operate for decades to come. That raises serious questions,” said Tim.

“Could there be a positive to come out of such a negative event? Was the well-established town centre retailing model already broken to the point where it simply could not be repaired? Structural change had set in and Banks Long & Co was predicting that, over a three-to-five-year period, town centres would be unrecognisable. Landlords would need to rethink their approach to owning shop property and their relationships with their tenants.

“Covid-19 has effectively accelerated the inevitable demise of the post-war High Street model. We are now entering the post-Covid-19 period – a period which we would have reached through a slow and painful process in the absence of the horrific worldwide pandemic.

“Some commentators, including myself, could argue that this is a ‘positive’. Whilst the next six-to-12 months will see an exaggerated repositioning within our much loved High Streets, centres which grasp opportunities for change – by re-purposing, looking ahead and embracing what will be the ‘new normal’ – will be those where investment will quickly return and tenants will thrive by working hand-in-hand with their landlords.”

One of the world’s most successful investors, Warren Buffett, once said: “It’s only when the tide goes out that you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

“In my opinion, the tide is as far out as it could be in modern day free-market terms. Lots of businesses, many retailers and food and beverage companies will be lost. Business will return, but towns and cities will look different,” said Tim.

“In Lincoln, for more than five years now, Lincolnshire Co-operative has recognised the direction of the tide. Rather than investing for the short term, the Society’s strategy has been to invest for the long term. The success of the Cornhill Quarter, Lincoln is testament to the emerging new shape of our city centres.”

Banks Long & Co, which is surrounded by a group of like-minded advisors to the Co-op, has been fortunate to be part of the regeneration of Lincoln’s Cornhill and Sincil Street areas. Before Covid-19, the scheme was being referenced as an example of the new dawn when it comes to the re-purposing of town centres.

“Open air, attractive street frontages, quality public realm and a mix of quality occupiers, who bring an added and varied dimension to the town centre visitor experience, are key,” said Tim. “Attracting the likes of Everyman Cinema, The Botanist, Seasalt, 200 Degrees Coffee, Flying Tiger, Neon Sheep – and the shortly to open Whistles, Hobbs and Phase Eight – has been an achievement which, coupled with small independent traders, will allow the Cornhill Quarter to continue expanding beyond Covid-19.”

So, with 200 Degrees Coffee recently re-opening its doors in the Cornhill Quarter for outsales, what might the future look like? Shoppers’ familiarity with online services will increase the impact of online retailing on bricks and mortar businesses, but Tim is confident that while companies’ floorspace requirements will reduce, traders embracing the principle of “remote consumption” will continue to have a place on the High Street.

“I say this because the consumer will move away from their hunger for more, more, more and begin to appreciate the quality of the overall experience. Town centres should seek to provide a theatre which plays to all of our senses,” said Tim.

“It will not just be about ‘click and deliver’ or ‘click and collect’. The consumer will also want to improve their experience by dealing with quality traders who understand their audience. People will want to eat and drink in a wide range of different establishments and, once we are able to do so, to spend time with friends.

“Town centres have a key role to play in stitching back together the social fabric of this country. Landlords and tenants must unite. Centres will inevitably contract, but they will become the home for a population keen to grasp an ethical and sustainable way of life.

“Living, working and socialising within walking distance of a main centre will become more attractive to an age group which understands the need for society to become much more environmentally aware.

“Consumerism will be replaced by the provision of a quality diverse experience. As I said in 2019, ‘the High Street is dead – long live the High Street!’,” added Tim.

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