The changing face of Bexhill’s town centre shopping streets

19/2/13- No.48, Devonshire Road, Bexhill.  Andy Rimmer
19/2/13- No.48, Devonshire Road, Bexhill. Andy Rimmer

THESE are tough times for everyone - especially traders on our high streets doing battle with online shopping as well as reluctant customers looking to save their money.

Just a quick glance around any town centre tells the story of how difficult life is with businesses closing down including long-established local names and retail giants such as Comet and HMV.

Bexhill is no different, but how are retailers coping with all they have to deal with in the wake of a double dip recession and the rest of us more likely to save than splash the cash? At present there are 22 empty shops in Bexhill’s town centre.

Ursula Barber, who set up her curtain-making and alterations business in Western Road two years ago, agrees it is tough. “We are struggling like everybody else but we are going to give it a good go. We try and diversify, and do other things. But everyone is struggling. Then you have these larger shops, such as M&S starting up at Glyne Gap, and you don’t know if they will start doing the things we do, which will affect us.”

Further up is Emma Clutten at Delli’s Delight, who has been selling fresh sandwiches, salads and snacks since May last year. She finds it “extremely hard” but is glad nevertheless she opened her shop although wishes she was in the Devonshire Road end of the street as she thinks it busier and shops more likely to succeed.

Almost opposite is the The Phone Call where owners Julia and Mark Wilkins are calling it a day. They will be closing their mobile phone shop by the end of February.

Julia blamed the cost of rent which she described “extortionate”, with many landlords wanting full repairing leases. She added: “I do feel sorry for all businesses around here. There are such quiet days - we all struggle. We have provided for quite a few years a good service, and lots of people are coming in to say how sorry they are we are closing down, that we have been so helpful. It probably will be missed. We would like to thank all the customers we have had over the years, there are a lot of people who supported us.”

Also closing a few doors up is Bush, which sells quirky homeware and decorations, and has been open in its present form for six months. Owner Becky Bush is going to focus on selling online but will miss the personal contact of running a shop. She said: “I love being face to face with people - but you have such high overheads. And people don’t always come to Bexhill, they tend to go to Eastbourne or Hastings. We look around in Bexhill and it is one of those places where you have one of everything, but then you look around again and one of everything is closing. I think all small towns are the same. There is no money here. It is heartbreaking.”

In Devonshire Road is Music’s Not Dead run by Del Querns and Richard Wortley who opened in September 2011 and report that their shop is doing better than they imagined it would. They thought their business would depend more on online transactions but are finding a growing market, especially with youngsters who previously downloaded but are increasingly interested in buying vinyl. Del said: “We like it here - I love Bexhill. It is a great place with really interesting diverse people. It is always a struggle to make money and the margins in music are very small, with us having to compete with companies that don’t pay any tax, like Amazon, but on the whole this is a good place to be. And a lot of people might moan about the De La Warr Pavilion but without it we would have a real struggle. I think the main trouble with the town centre is there’s an awful lot of cafes, and awful lot of charity shops, and not many places where people actually shop.”

The pair criticised landlords for high rent and claimed when they were interested in empty premises in Sackville Road they offered just under the full £6,500 lease for a year, and were turned down.

Music’s Not Dead holds live music events which make no profit but do promote the business effectively and the pair feel Music’s Not Dead benefits from goodwill locally. It’s a sentiment echoed by Andy Rimmer of No 48 cafe in Devonshire Road who has tried many ways to make his business work including live music, art shows, supporting local sport, and hosting charity events. He stresses the importance of using only local produce and suppliers and thinks this also generates community support.

However paying rent for a high street property no longer guarantees footfall and he looks at this expenditure as cost rather than investment, knowing he has to make effort to get customers in and keep them coming back. He commented: “I think our customers would describe us as successful. I have to work a lot and I have to be all things to all people. You have to put yourself out on more than more front. But if you look after people they look after you - it is reciprocated.”

Just starting out now is Zarene Legge of Mitzar’s Florist in Sackville Road. At 26 this is her first business and she is optimistic, although shocked by unexpected costs. She is paying £6,500 yearly rental but having received unexpected service charges estimates it is more like £8,000. However she added: “I am definitely getting known. I try to buy as cheaply as possible so I can get the business going, otherwise it is not going to work out at all. I’m taking it as it comes, seeing how it all goes.”

Rother District Council, head of regeneration and estates, Graham Burgess said: “Town centres are important to all of us, they provide services to local people, act as a focal point for employment and leisure, and are regarded as a yardstick of a town’s prosperity.

“The health of our town centres is measured by the quality and variety of shops, restaurants and places of entertainment. It is important to residents, visitors and to investors. With the current economic downturn, town centres are facing their most challenging times in a generation. Changing customer behaviours, expectations and the impact of technology has had a dramatic effect on high streets up and down the country.

“If Bexhill town centre is to prosper in the future it must find ways to increase customer spending. This means not simply attracting more footfall, but footfall coupled with spending power.

“ Bexhill needs to be able to appeal to the aspirational and to the wealth generators of the future.

“The aim of the draft strategy is to address some of the challenges facing the town centre, increase commercial vitality and reduce deprivation. People should bear in mind this is a long process and it needs everyone to work together – it won’t be the just council’s strategy, but Bexhill’s strategy, based on what people tell us.”