During the 3 month lockdown which started in March most English cities including Chichester in West Sussex could have been described as ‘ghost towns’. Everyone has been staying inside to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and visitors have been keeping away from the usual attractions and tourism has been non-existent.
Not as many people are visiting the city centre this summer and so far footfall is way down compared to last year. No restaurants are open yet but most plan to open with about 50% less customers to allow for keeping at least 1 meter distance between diners from tomorrow.
Last winter the department store House of Fraser closed in Chichester. Other big shops like Bon Marche and Laura Ashley also closed after many years. It now looks like Ashley will now not be bought by an investment company after the international chain went into administration this Spring.
Smaller boutiques like East, Swarovski, Pushka, Old Guy’s T shirts, Molten Brown cosmetics, music shop Guitar Sound and menswear tailor Andrew McDowall have also called it a day over the last 12 months which has left quite a few empty shops across town.
Oasis has been a special colourful destination for young female fashionistas for decades but now stands dark and empty near the central Market Cross. Oasis closed this month after being bought by online fashion retailer Boo Hoo.
Chichester Flight Centre is now permanently shut as the travel industry has been severely impacted by the government’s quarantine. (4)
Monsoon are still in Chichester but the classic company are also struggling. They advised the press about a strategy to close a several stores across the region this year.
This leaves Marks and Spencer, Top Shop, H&M and New Look as the remaining large shops in Chichester offering a range of affordable fashion for everyone. Marks and Spencer is ticking along fine as it is fortunate to have been able to keep open throughout the lockdown and is able to lean on strong food department sales.
Boutiques like Jigsaw, Mint Velvet, White Stuff, Mistral and Fatface now have big challenges but their relatively smaller size and higher price points gives them an opportunity to use their unique products and customer service skills to ensure they can keep their balance sheets looking healthy.
Smaller premises like Lush and Lili, Preview, Stephen Lawrence and Indigo are independent boutiques that add to the charm of Chichester and give shoppers the option to choose something completely unique.
Brightly coloured face masks and plastic gloves are now the new accessory finding favour as people stroll along the old worn flagstones again. The ‘meet and greeters’ are in the front of nearly all of the companies entrances.
The front of house assistant’s corporate uniforms are often black. When the personal protection equipment is added the combination could give the impression that fancy dress has come into stock early were it not for the neon signage reinforcing the safe distancing policies of the establishments.
The shop keepers manage the customer flow into their buildings to ensure there is a limited number of browsers inside at any time. Fashion leader Next set up a large sign declaring a limit of 13 customers checking out their capacious floor of summer collections at any one moment. Consequently there were a few locals waiting patiently and standing well back from eachother politely outside.
There are temporary construction barriers and signage due to ongoing maintenance work to upgrade the unreliable electricity network all along East Street. This means only the keenest trendy residents will be bothered to navigate the barricades to be able to pop in to have a look in their regular local suppliers of clothing, homeware and gifts.
Clothkits and The Eternal Maker are both independent businesses in Chichester that sell fabric and gifts. Both independent shops usually offer classes to people in West Sussex who want to learn how to sew. Delivering one-to-one tuition is not possible with safe distancing at present. However both creative enterprises have used their entrepreneurial skills to continue trading through the crisis. Folk of all ages are learning new skills and hobbies.
Providing craft supplies, kits and take away cafe services they have been able to survive and prosper to some extent through an unexpectedly difficult season financially. Smaller privately owned ventures have been able to change quickly and innovate. Clothkit’s invention Drapers Yard is a mini market collaboration of local designer makers, artists and micro cafes and bakeries. Draper Yard have been providing delivery services and an online ordering to take away from its premises in The Hornet. They provide weekly jolly newsletters and a pick up service every week from Clothkits which has been named Yum Saturday.
The fitting rooms are nearly all staying shut for trying on womenswear, menswear and childrenswear. Perhaps in the future fitting rooms will be individual pods that are also self washing facilities to ensure that they are completely sanitised between clients.
Companies have been providing additional training for their staff about the correct way of wearing PPE. In addition they have been focusing on extra staff cleaning procedures, managing customer service safely, effectively directing and separating their precious human ‘traffic’ with floor stickers.
There were several people lined up and eager to wait for their turn to look through the rails at T K Maxx which reopened last Monday in Chichester. This large shop has 2 floors and perhaps it is particularly popular as the designer ‘jumble sale’ format is about finding hidden treasures at bargain prices, so is by its nature a physical activity. Creating an instore experience has never been so important for tempting reluctant men, women and children back again to enjoy some leisure time and spend some money in local outlets.
Looking at the weather report before going into town has become more important than ever as queueing outside shops has become the ‘new normal’. Older people and those with health conditions will need to pick the quietest times carefully or bring portable seating to avoid getting exhausted before attempting to tick anything off their shopping list. It would be understandable if not everyone sees the appeal of getting into a line on the pavement like you are ready to dance at the hottest new club. Unless the listing building rules change is will be impossible for businesses to provide covered entrances for customers in inclement weather.
Chichester is still a wonderful place to spend time with friends and family and enjoy the medieval architecture. The cafe culture which will commence again this weekend will make a big difference to creating a positive shopping atmosphere. The cathedral gardens and parks have still been popular during this unusual season and offer a sanctuary and a change of scene for residents.
We may see the larger buildings in Chichester become impossible to fill with profitable shops during this difficult trading situation. Rates, staff costs, imported stock costs and electricity might just not make these grand ventures viable.
It is possible we will see a return to a more old fashioned style ‘quality not quantity’ high street in the future. Hopefully independent boutiques stocking local produce and craft will still be able to flourish. These organisations add charachter to the town centre. As environmentally friendly values become the norm more Sussex produced and sustainable product ranges could be supported by residents and also bought by visitors from all over the world.
(1) ‘Chichester’s lost businesses: The changing nature of our high street’ Joe Stack, Chicheser Observer
(2) ‘Travel store in Chichester’s city centre permanently closes’ Sam Morton, Chichester Observer