Does Stamford High Street need a rethink to survive in post-lockdown world?
Midway through a fateful Monday evening almost exactly a year ago, everyday life flipped on its head as we stepped into the great unknown of a first national lockdown.
As Boris Johnson crashed the primetime TV schedules to make the grim announcement, the initial shock and fear was followed by a whole raft of questions.
Twelve months on, and at the tail end of a third lockdown, the landscape for the Stamford business community remains far from clear.
Experts suggest independent and local businesses will emerge the stronger, while the huge national chains will feel the heat.
Andrew Leech, partner at Richardsons Estate Agents, echoes this forecast for Stamford.
“I think the high street will see lots of change as perhaps some of the nationals don’t reopen,” he said,
“We have already seen a few shops on the market go and I think we will see a few more nationals not reopen."
Stamford town centre has been shorn of a host of businesses, with the closure of big chains perhaps causing the biggest shockwaves.
Clarks shoe shop left its Red Lion Square premises in February, while fashion retailers Oasis, M&Co and Jack Wills also quit their High Street bases.
National newsagents Martins also pulled out of High Street, as did Cancer Research UK.
Yet for all the turbulence, it was not all bad news, as a new set of rules sparked fresh business ideas, ranging from new shops and outlets, to enterprising cottage industries.
Shekleton Wines opened in Chapel Yard in November, environmentally-friendly food shop All Good Market launched in St Paul’s Street last October, while Stamford Botanics will be opening there post-lockdown.
Government aid has also undoubtedly helped to limit the damage.
InvestSK, the South Kesteven District Council-owned economic growth and regeneration company, has handed out more than £38m of Government grants across the district, with more on its way following last month’s Budget.
It has allowed traders to at least cover the bills, if not move forward in profit, but questions remain over the long-term health of town centres.
“On Stamford high street, rents and business rates are so high which often make the units uneconomic," added Mr Leech.
“But the secondary areas which are popular with the independents and local traders will continue to thrive.
“Landlords there are more flexible with their approach to tenants, and their tenants are more entrepreneurial and able to adjust.
“Those with a good online presence will continue to do well.”
The need for evolution on the town’s high street is echoed by Richard Olsen, chairman of Stamford Chamber of Commerce.
“The high street in particular is suffering,” he said.
“It’s getting to the point where people are considering whether they can continue, even in the post-Covid world.
“It has had quite an impact on the whole retail and hospitality sector. My concern is how many businesses will ever reopen their doors.”
Click and collect has been a boon for many traders, allowing them to operate on some level while having to close their doors to passing trade.
However, Mr Olsen believes many small independent businesses are not yet geared up for the digital world.
“The council is looking into projects on how to improve online ecommerce in the retail environment, but it can only go so far,” he said.
“For local retailers, people walking through the high street is what they need.
“It doesn’t really help pubs, cafes and restaurants.
“We just need to get back to a world where we can all go down the high street and eat in restaurants.
“Our world needs to change, but let’s open things up again.”
The high street has already seen big units formerly occupied by high street chains fall empty, and Mr Leech believes the way the high street is managed must change if it is to become vibrant once again.
“More premises have become vacant on the high street than there has been for a long time,” he said.
“The question remains what will happen to the empty shops on the high street?
“Will we see changes of use or will rents be readjusted?
“There is always a turnover - tenants come and they go - but those shops that become empty in the secondary areas do get re-let.”