When Neelam Kumari learned that thousands of people were flocking to Bournemouth Beach last month, she thought it might be good for business. Now, standing behind a Perspex screen at a phone repair and accessories store in the city center, she shakes her head.
“Half a million people came… but the city was dead,” she says.
Dorset town center stores have spent years competing with online retailers and alternative malls with free parking. Bubble cafes and brunches have sprung up in place of some who have folded. Now many shops, restaurants and bars are struggling with the additional challenges posed by the coronavirus – and there are fears that it could be the “nail in the coffin” for some businesses.
Neelam, keeping an eye out for the lone customer browsing a display of iPad cases, says the store is much quieter than it was around the same time last year. She believes more and more people got used to online shopping during the lockdown, while students, who make up the majority of their profession, have not been since the university closed. People come to Main Street to have a must-see day, she says.
“Many of them say” we are waiting to go back to work to get a decent salary and then get this money “. So we’re hopeful… but it’s a game of waiting. ”
The shutters of the jewelers opposite have been lowered since March. A few doors down, the windows of the M&S that I was dragged away by my nan during my childhood have been closed for two years.
It’s a hot Saturday and there are a lot of people. But, if I think about it, not as many as there usually would be at this time of year.
Outside of Clarks, where I spent my weekends adjusting children’s shoes as a teenager, cab drivers Steve Cox and Phil Zamora are waiting for their next clients. It’s about 3 p.m. and Phil has only had three jobs all day. Steve says the resort hasn’t been much better.
“It takes about two to three hours to wait and when the trains arrive, there is no one on board,” he said. “It’s not worth it to come, we go out because that’s what we do. ”
Phil works day shifts but the closing of nightclubs has had a ripple effect.
“These guys who work at night, because there is no work, they go out by day now. This is diluting the work now, ”he says.
In the square, Laura Dickie distributes flyers for her new pop-up of designer clothes at reduced prices. She is optimistic, noting that the holiday schedule means weekdays are just as busy as weekends and discounts have become even more attractive.
“Because people want this market, they’re happy to spend the money. They still want the designer names and designer brands, ”she shrugged.
Across town, Carol and Ben Coulston sit on a bench in a newly pedestrianized area outside of Beales, which retreated in March. They normally come to town to shop and socialize, but many of their elderly friends are staying away because of the coronavirus.
Carol estimates that a dozen stores are empty on this street, while some businesses that have collapsed have been replaced by eating places. A sushi shop and an ice cream shop across the street were Clintons Cards and Jones Bootmaker.
“General shopping, there seems to be less and less,” says Ben. “If you need a pair of boot laces, you can’t get them. You can get a sandwich anywhere. “
‘A tough fight’
Bournemouth is a reflection of a broader shift towards hospitality in city centers, says Rod Cake, director of the Bournemouth Town Center Business Improvement District (BID). He believes food outlets, like his own sports bar, will eventually see a spike in spending – especially with the European Football Championship and the World Cup not far on the horizon – but he’s concerned about shopping. .
According to the most recent IDB survey, only 13% of visitors rated shops as ‘excellent’ in 2018 – down from 27% in 2011. Yet 41% gave restaurants in Bournemouth the highest rating. The largest number of refusals among visitors was the number of people who slept poorly (64%) and the cost of parking (59%). There is a shopping center a short drive away with free parking.
To energize downtown, the IDB launched a “spend local, stay local” campaign and promoted downtown gift cards, but Rod Cake says it’s hard to plan with uncertainty.
“It’s going to be a tough fight. I think it was a tough industry before the coronavirus, “he said, adding that the pandemic will be a” last nail in the coffin “for some stores.
But even some food centers are struggling. In the relatively new BH2 complex, which houses the Odeon Cinemas and a chain of restaurant chains, a group of vacationers from Hastings are evaluating their dining options. Pizza Express? Closed. Burger Co. in hand? Closed. Even the ice cream stand is closed and it’s 20 ° C outside.
Restaurants that depend on office workers have been particularly affected. Just north of the city center, in an Italian brewery located near several insurance companies, Hassan and Tracy Sefat say they would serve around 50 people one day a week before the pandemic – but now it’s just ‘one or two.
“We have the outside area, but they’re not here. They get money on vacation and they say, “I’m not taking any chances,” “says Hassan, adding that the bosses should ask the employees to come back to the office.
“They have to go out and… give to local businesses to survive.”
‘I hope we survive’
The Sefats restaurant has also been affected by a drop in marriages, as well as stag and hen parties. Clubbing is one of the things Bournemouth is best known for after all. Before a series of closed clubs and closed chicken shops, a group of men in their early 20s walk past, remembering the evenings before the lockdown. Usually in a couple of hours this place would lift up. But Alan Dove, another director of the IDB, says late-night venues are “on their knees.”
“What they need is clarity, fixed cost assistance and VAT relief when they open up to rebuild trade reserves and customer confidence. If these things don’t happen, they will close, ”he says.
Drinking establishments that may have reopened must adapt to survive. Peter Hector only opened his micro-pub on the outskirts of town three years ago and was just starting to break even when the pandemic struck. Now he buys take-out cans and bottles and has launched an app that allows customers to place orders.
Her Friday night revenue was down about 40% from the same time last year – and extra precautions like Perspex screens on tables cost her hundreds.
“I hope we survive, but I don’t know,” he said.
“I think when winter comes, that will be the test. If we get a second spike, it will end many small businesses. “