“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the retail business,” said 73-year-old greengrocer Robin Blair from his stall in Darlington, where retailers fight for survival against fierce online competition.
The northeastern English town’s struggling high street has been hit hard by rising business rents, stretched household budgets and above-average UK unemployment.
Darlington’s plight is mirrored in towns and cities across Britain, with traditional shops also under pressure from both supermarkets and increasingly popular discount stores — like B&M Bargains and Poundland.
“Darlington will survive. It will change in a changing world,” Blair told AFP from his stall in the renowned indoor market.
The town sits close to the city of Newcastle and voted in favour of Brexit in the nation’s shock EU exit referendum in June 2016.
Yet Brexit uncertainty continues to weigh on the pound, pushing up the cost of goods imported into Britain.
That has fed through into rising prices at the tills and compounded the tough consumer climate.
‘We are still trading’
Despite multiple headwinds, Blair — custodian of the family’s 140-year-old fruit and vegetable business — is optimistic.
“We are still here, we are still trading and I am quite positive.
“It’s not because of the internet and the supermarkets … that we are going to give up. We are a different form of trading from what they do.“
Home to the world’s first public railway, Darlington has about 15 percent of its business premises vacant and an unemployment rate of just over five percent, above the UK average of a relatively-low 4.0 percent.
After department store BHS shut its premises in the town in 2016, food-to-clothing chain Marks and Spencer followed suit in August on the main shopping street.
“We lost M&S which is a big blow to Darlington, but we will have to do our best to continue trading,” Blair said.
“It’s more difficult (times) for the bigger stores, but they are important to us because they draw people” to the market.
“People like the atmosphere of the market… it needs to be worked on for the modern age but we are not dead,” Blair insisted, recalling how his stall and others survived the emergence of supermarkets in the late 1970s.
And while Darlington has been saved from losing another department store, with the recent rescue of the House of Fraser chain, data points to continued tough times for physical UK stores sales, which dropped 2.7 percent in August according to accountants BDO.
In an effort to address the situation, British finance minister Philip Hammond has said he would look into introducing a new tax for internet giants like Amazon, while lobby groups are demanding lower levies for properties and free parking.
Darlington councillor Nick Wallis believes rather than the status quo, shops will make way for homes, which will sit alongside larger numbers of cafes catering for an increasing “night time culture“.
Wallis, a representative of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, told AFP: “Town centres over the last 40-50 years have always been only a place for shops and shops alone; that will have to change.“
Meanwhile, responding directly to Darlington’s Labour MP Jenny Chapman regarding the town’s retail struggles, Hammond told parliament Tuesday:
“We all recognise that… high streets are under pressure and that’s primarily because the behaviour of consumers is changing.
“Our challenge is to support the high street as it goes through that changed process.”
There are moves afoot for Darlington’s business community to embrace the internet — rather than be threatened by it.
Tori Gill, managing director of Darlington-based TGI Media, said the marketing company was seeking to transform the town’s fortunes using social media under the catchline #LoveDarlo on Facebook.
“The goal is to increase footfall in the town centre by working with the businesses in the town, getting information from them and putting them on social media,” Gill told AFP.
The market’s operator said changes were being made also to make its stalls more inviting.
“Footfall has gone down slightly over the years because of new shopping habits,” said Alexandra Nicholson, representing operator Market Asset Management, adding there was competition also from out-of-town retail parks.