In this post, I take a look at the latest state of retail in Reading. Trying to find out whether local shopkeepers had a successful Christmas season is not entirely straightforward. Chains provide updates on their national performance, but don’t provide store-by-store breakdowns. However, we do have some figures published by the Reading BID (business improvement district) on footfall in the town centre, together with some commentary and quotes from retailers. They’ve given a headline figure of -5.6% vs Christmas 2017, against a national average of -3.8%. Some of individual comments were interesting:
The full data around Christmas footfall isn’t published, but weekly updates for January have appeared. These weekly reports provide a more insightful breakdown. It turns out that the footfall figure published is the sum of two figures from two different sensors.
The week as a whole reports a -15% figure. However, one sensor is actually recording an increase on previous years, whilst the other records a large decrease. The sensor by the Ecco store is at the eastern end of Broad Street. I contacted Reading BID to find out where the other “Broad Street” sensor was located. The answer was “just outside Artigiano”, which is at the western end opposite Next.
There is a risk of over-analysing these figures. Some kind of disturbance – like water or gas works to a section of pavement in front of a sensor – could create very misleading results, and the BID spokesperson told me that the figures are used as a guide rather than to be taken as hard fact. Yet the pattern is very stark, and backed up by their reports from earlier in 2017 that point to the same trend, albeit less dramatic. The western end of Broad Street is clearly a less popular place than it was. Meanwhile, the positive figures at the eastern end of Broad Street offer a possibility that visits to the town centre might not be down on previous years – it could be that all the same people came to town but this year they didn’t walk past Artigiano.
Looking along this stretch, we have Boots (will they persist with two stores in such close proximity?), H&M (closed during 2017), River Island (moving to the Oracle in 2018), Next (also moving to the Oracle in 2018), Clas Ohlson (appears much quieter than it used to). Clearly, with those relocations, there is a risk that the downward trend, which probably began when Primark moved in 2016, could continue. The BID spokesperson was more upbeat. Nationwide will be taking the ex-H&M spot (closing its two smaller Broad St and Station Road branches), Foot Locker is moving from the Broad St Mall onto Broad St, and he commented that shops in Reading don’t stay empty for long, quoting an overall vacancy rate that would be the envy of most towns, whilst rents apparently aren’t even being reduced. Personally, I think they’ll need a big new name to pitch up along here to turn around fortunes.
Testing out my theory that the negatives might be confined to one half of one street, let’s take a look elsewhere. The Oracle hasn’t reported Christmas figures. But Hammerson’s national update on its malls includes one reference: “The Oracle saw footfall up +6% year on year during The Riverside relaunch in September featuring a Las Vegas style light & fountain show”. I’d speculate they fared reasonably well. Meanwhile Broad St Mall replied to my email to say “we were down in December but not by much… Since Christmas we have constantly beaten local, regional and national trends in footfall”.
I’m surprised data is limited to two sensors. With everyone walking around with mobiles, Google must know which streets are being used, by whom, and for how long. Maybe everyone’s cutting past St Mary’s Minster to get between the two malls? We could have Britain’s busiest graveyard and not even know it.
The momentum is clearly with the two malls. Broad St Mall have permission for their new box park mall, and have just applied for permission to knock down the Eva (ex Mango) nightclub to help open up the area. They went on to comment “We have interest in the former Argos unit… The [containers] project is now being worked up which is likely to include the basement space… We have exciting projects shaping up for this year.” The Oracle is busy too, with the whole ex-Waterstones area being amalgamated with the under-used area of concourse to create a large regional flagship for Next, with escalators to an upper floor area incorporating the former Clinton Cards and two other units. They’re also chiselling off a sliver of Debenhams to create a larger unit for River Island.
The advantage the malls enjoy is that you have a single owner for the whole scheme. They can manage it closely, invest in the centre as a whole and make changes, bashing down a few walls if necessary. They recoup their investments through small improvements across the whole mall. But poor old Broad Street doesn’t have a single organisation running it. The BID told me that they talk to the shopkeepers – the leaseholders, but don’t speak to the freeholders, which are typically various large pension funds – some 60+ individual owners for Broad Street alone.
Right now, I think Broad Street – the western end at least – could do with some co-operation between different owners. They could knock down that sequence of dated but unremarkable buildings and give themselves some options: Bring in a big retailer and build them a large unit to suit. Build a block with leisure units – bowling, crazy golf, cinema (there used to be one there). Build multiple smaller blocks with a network of lanes between them – they could even restore this old workshop building behind Boots (credit Callum Cromwell who shared this on Old Reading Plus prompting a fascinating conversation).
Perhaps it’s inevitable for some contrasting fortunes within a town centre. On balance, it would appear that Reading has been relatively unscathed by new competition from Oxford and Bracknell. Overall, our High Street is in a good state. In fact, our literal High Street is famously the shortest in the country covering the tiny stretch of road up to Market Place with the Oxfam bookshop and the newly-opened Honest Burgers its only addresses. Edible Reading has just published a positive review of the restaurant, in a piece that included some interesting reflections on the town:
I don’t know what the future holds for Reading – whether we’ll ever strike out and celebrate our identity the way Bristol or Brighton do or whether, under the business-centric influence of our nebulous quangos we’ll just become a creeping extension of London.
I think quango is a reference to the business groups like the BID. In fairness, they do good work you might have thought the council would do on things like security, cleaning, hanging baskets and more. But I’d like to see Reading BID, or their parent community interest company, round up these western Broad Street freeholders and their agents, bring them to Reading, give them some champagne (if that’s how these things are done) and get something happening.
The BID also arranges and supports events. Tonight they’ve tweeted their support for Launchpad’s annual Pancake race. Although I have to admit I chuckled when I saw the precise location for the race:
I admire the direct action to address the footfall crisis, but I’m not sure running relay races right past the sensor is quite going to translate into sales! Note to self – ignore February’s figure. Joking aside, events are an important part of broadening the appeal of the town centre. We might need to be more creative to bring people in and keep the town centre thriving. This year we have more food markets, festivals, and of course, the re-opening of the Abbey Ruins, today announced for 16th June.
For retail, though, 2018 will be a fascinating one. Changes at the Oracle and new projects at Broad Street Mall will steal some column inches back off the Bracknells and Oxfords. Whether the potential opportunity created by some relocations will be taken is another question entirely.Follow @readingonthames
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