Lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic have created a perfect storm for town centres and a good Christmas will be essential for many businesses.

Youings is keen to see an increase in high street footfall because among other things, it relies on drawing in customers through its innovative window displays. Picture: Tony GussinYouings is keen to see an increase in high street footfall because among other things, it relies on drawing in customers through its innovative window displays. Picture: Tony Gussin

This week the North Devon Gazette is launching its Shop Local campaign, as are all newspapers across the country published by our parent company Archant.

Alongside and fully supporting North Devon Council’s Live Love Local campaign, we will show why it is so crucial to our area and its economy for people to support their local businesses.

When the coronavirus storm has passed it is our hope local shops and stores, suppliers, pubs and restaurants, will have weathered it safely.

So many have radically changed the way they operate to ensure customers and staff are as safe as possible, despite the thankfully low number of Covid-19 cases in the area so far.

Melissa Pendlebury at Just Trio in Barnstaple says the store has experienced a rush since lockdown eased. Picture: Tony GussinMelissa Pendlebury at Just Trio in Barnstaple says the store has experienced a rush since lockdown eased. Picture: Tony Gussin

This week our reporters have been speaking to traders in Barnstaple and Bideford about how they have adapted, innovated and are continuing to look to the future.

Barnstaple traders have urged shoppers to support their local town centres in the run up to Christmas.

Many of those we spoke to were remarkably upbeat and had taken the opportunity of lockdown and the ‘new normal’ to bring in innovations to help their business and their customers, while others also saw unexpected benefits following lockdown.

Mark Parkhouse, owner of Mark Parkhouse Antiques and Jewellery in Barnstaple High Street, is upbeat but says Christmas will be vital for the town centre. Picture: Tony GussinMark Parkhouse, owner of Mark Parkhouse Antiques and Jewellery in Barnstaple High Street, is upbeat but says Christmas will be vital for the town centre. Picture: Tony Gussin

Town centre manager Hannah Harrington said although footfall was down on this time last year, it was increasing and showing signs of coming back.

She said: “Obviously it’s been a difficult year for our local businesses. They were forced to close and since then there has been a huge amount of pressure and change that they have had to make in order to reopen safely.

“Lots of them adapted the way they worked during the pandemic, different ways of supporting us, and really now it’s about us supporting them through this very difficult time. That’s where Live Love Local comes in, which we launched in conjunction with NDC to support businesses as the reopened and encourage residents to spend locally.”

Footfall is key

Toy and model shop, confectioner and tobacconist, Youings of Barnstaple, has existed since 1884 and has seen many changes.

Proprietor Peter Youing said he was optimistic but Christmas would be key. He said: “We do rely on footfall – if you have beautiful shop windows you rely on that to pull people in as they walk past.

“Christmas is obviously the biggest selling time of the year and a huge percentage of our business is done in those six weeks. We are ready for it, we have stocks ready, but just hope that people are going to be in town.”

The aftermath of lockdown actually helped some businesses – home styling specialist Just Trio saw an influx of shoppers eager for its furniture, interior décor and gifts.

Melissa Pendlebury at the store said: “We found that people were shopping more purposefully – a lot had done their deciding during lockdown and were coming in with a specific item in mind.

“We have been very lucky that as our local shop they have not forgotten us. It would have been very easy to shop online but they have come back and we are truly grateful for that.

“If people stop shopping locally, local people won’t have jobs, it’s that simple.”

Town centre investment needed

Mark Parkhouse Antiques and Jewellery owner Mr Parkhouse reported a similar post lockdown rush, as people emerged keen to mark a special occasion such as birthdays or engagements.

He said: “I would say it’s very positive, I would not say we have taken a hit, I think it’s been the reverse.”

But he said it was ‘absolutely essential’ for people to support their town centres if they valued having local shops where they could go for expert help and advice.

He added: “Christmas is going to be extremely vital – what we do then will keep us going to the summer.

“It would be nice to think that people will come out in spite of the conditions to do their shopping and will feel safe and comfortable to do so.”

All the traders we spoke to praised the government support received through the furlough scheme and measures such as rates holidays.

Mr Youing said he did not see what more the government could have done, but called on landlords and the council to consider the level of high street rents and rates.

Ms Pendlebury said she felt more could be done on a local level to help small businesses. She said: “We are still seeing a lot of empty shops on the high street, we are still seeing national retailers closing, not just Barnstaple but all over.”

And Mr Parkhouse suggested more investment was needed in the town centre to create a ‘mini Exeter’ with a pedestrianised covered outdoor area with chairs and tables, similar to the streets of Italian, French and many European towns.

In the weeks ahead we will bring you many more stories under the Shop Local banner. If you would like to give your point of view or talk about how your business is coping during the pandemic, please email newsdesk@northdevongazette.co.uk .