It’s been a difficult 18 months for Maidstone’s high streets. The pandemic first brought lockdowns and then shop owners were required to invest in safety measures in order to re-open. Reports of the “death of the high street” were prominent as consumers were forced to buying online, and many retailers feared that customers would never return. The restrictions also put pressure on supply chains and suppliers – we saw a marked decline in requests for shop insurance – and the situation looked bleak for a time.
Happily, since the summer things have begun to get back to some semblance of normality. But what of the future? Can Maidstone’s retail sector regain its former vigour? In this latest blog from Coversure Maidstone we’ll take a look at how our high street has fared, what the opportunities are, and explore what the future holds.
High Street Sales Remain Subdued
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), show that despite lockdown restrictions being eased, shoppers appear hesitant to come back and shop in our high streets. With retail sales volumes falling by 0.2% in September, and with local newspapers reporting that the likes of M&S are closing their Maidstone town centre store, it’s perhaps difficult to be optimistic.
But despite us going through the longest period of consecutive monthly retail sales falls in recent history, with retail sales volumes falling each month since April 2021, when you take a wider look at the numbers perhaps it’s not as bad as it first appears.
One reason for the falling volumes is that April was such a bumper month. It was when non-essential retailing re-opened, so we all went out and shopped ‘til we dropped! Added to that if we look back a bit further, we see that retail volumes are still 4.2% higher than their pre-pandemic February 2020 levels.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, however, that the proportion of total retail sales that were made online has continued to rise, with September seeing an increase of 0.5% when compared to August. With 28.1% of all sales now online, it’s clear that there’s been a major shift since the pandemic hit, when back in February 2020 just 19.7% of sales were made online. That said, an American Express report of 2020 showed a 69% increase in positive sentiment toward local businesses. While online shopping has become (even) more popular, the retail ‘experience’ is something people value and that could be key to the high street’s future.
Retail experts are urging shop owners that now is the time to make changes to ensure that their businesses stay ahead relevant. Some 85,000 UK businesses reportedly launched online stores or joined online marketplaces during lockdown. For some, the lockdowns may have been the push they needed to digitalise their businesses, but what now for their commercial properties? Stores, so say those in the know, will need to expand their usage from being the sole point of transaction to showrooms and fulfillment hubs, enabling or supporting digital purchases. We’ve seen the reverse of this happening with Amazon. The online retail giant has begun opening physical stores in part to give shoppers that retail experience and in part to boost sales.
If stores do close, then as well as trying to tempt in new retailers, Maidstone Borough Council is looking at other ways the town could navigate this ever-growing digital economy.
A strategic review is underway looking at how the town centre could be a destination for leisure as well as retail. So, what are some of the local initiatives and investments going on in our town?
The High Street: The Beating Heart Of Our Town
During the summer we saw Elmer’s Big Heart of Kent Parade, where 81 large and small brightly painted elephants were placed around the town centre, parks and riverside. A survey commissioned by Wild in Art detailed that the trail was enjoyed by 230,979 visitors, with 61% spending four days or more in the Maidstone area and that the parade had a total economic impact of just over £7 million.
The Council have been investing too. Its 8 years since the High Street Regeneration Project created a more pedestrian-friendly shopping environment, and the newly refurbished bus station will hopefully attract more shoppers out of their cars and on to public transport thus helping Maidstone thrive in a sustainable way.
Just 10 minutes from the high street is Maidstone Market which has also been looking to entice more footfall by diversifying its offering. In the summer the Council announced plans for a new monthly Local Producers and Craft Market to be run in the current market hall at Lockmeadow. It’s here that the new £467,000 Food Hall has just opened housing eight independent outlets, with all of the new tenants being Kent-based businesses. So, there’s plenty of innovation happening to support our local retailers and more besides.
More Reasons For Optimism
A recent study has shown that Maidstone is the most popular place to live in in Kent, and is one of the most popular towns in the UK. A total of 1,205 people moved into the town last year and as we outlined in our recent Maidstone property blog, 2021 , 2021 looks like it will be another boom year. A rising population surely will mean rising customer numbers as the trend, partly due to restrictions and climate change considerations, has been to shop locally.
We also saw last month the Chancellor giving our high streets a boost with a temporary cut in business rates along with scrapping the 2022’s planned rate increases. This came in recognition that our local businesses need financial support and help to invest and grow. Lastly with the festive period approaching and a return to what we hope will be a more ‘normal’ Christmas, Maidstone’s retailers will also be looking forward to the all-important Christmas rush.
So, from elephants to reindeers, to the rising population and a temporary cut in business rates, with more regeneration projects in the pipeline, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of Maidstone’s high street. No doubt there’ll be challenges, but we at Coversure Maidstone are convinced that our local resilient business owners will rise to the challenge, diversify where needs be and shine bright into 2022 and beyond.
Like Some Insurance Help?
Coversure Maidstone offers a traditional, community insurance broker service that’s focused on independent advice. Thanks to our broad range of expertise, we can give you all the help and advice you need to get the property, shop, or business insurance cover that’s right for you. If you’re looking to get great protection for a great premium, then give us a call on (01622) 759 015 or email Coversure Maidstone and we’ll get right back to you.
Retail sales, Great Britain – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)
85,000 online businesses launched during lockdown in the UK – UKTN (UK Tech News)
Reforming the UK’s high street will prevent £14.5bn loss in clothing sales by 2025, Eversheds Sutherland reports – Retail Times
Home – Elmer’s Big Heart of Kent Parade (elmermaidstone.co.uk)
Maidstone named most popular place to move to in Kent and second most popular town to buy house (kentonline.co.uk)
Budget 2021: Business rates cut for shops, restaurants and gyms – BBC News