Retail Gazette found Britain’s second city a vibrant and innovative retail centre where multiples and independents alike are working hard to reinvigorate consumer spending.
If travelling to Birmingham by train, a visitor is likely to arrive at New Street station and immediately be confronted with a sadly familiar sight across the UK, empty shops.
The Pallasades centre attached to the train station currently has at least 30 vacancies and several stores holding closing down sales but this is part of an evolution rather than a decline.
National Rail recently announced that it is renovating New Street station to add 16,000 sq ft of retail space and the Pallasades is getting a facelift and new tenants as part of the deal.
Birmingham’s retail offering has changed a lot in the last decade with the impressive Bullring shopping centre at its heart.
“In 2003 when we started there was a distinct lack of retailing and for the second largest city in the UK that was not good,” Tim Walley, General Manager of the Bullring, told Retail Gazette.
“Despite seven million people within one hour’s drive, the retail offer was basically just Marks & Spencer and House of Fraser.”
The city centre could hardly be more different now, showcasing all of the giants of British retail along with several exciting new international brands, including recent additions Hollister and Forever 21.
Retailers are increasingly seeing Birmingham as an ideal place to trial stores in the UK, with the innovative Black store from Dixons Retail, opened in December, a prime example.
Mark Webb, Head of Media Relations for Dixons, explained why Birmingham was chosen to showcase his company’s latest customer offerings.
He said: “It’s the second biggest city in the UK, It has great access and transport links so that you have a strong mix of demographics, and it’s slightly away from the main focus of London so you can quietly experiment with ideas out of the glare of national media.”
Black is certainly different from traditional electricals outlets, with play-tables, workshops and expertly trained staff making the latest high-end gadgets accessible to every customer in a tangible way.
Webb is keen to emphasise that this store is just part of Dixons Renewal and Transformation plan, launched in May 2008, which has seen a rebranding of its Tech-Guys services as Know-How and renovations of its existing PC World and Curry’s stores.
“You can read between the lines because we are delighted with how things are going but this is just a trial store,” Webb added.
Trial store or not Black is certainly engaging and can only be enhancing the reputation of Dixons in the local area and beyond.
Birmingham is not all about the big brands, however, and the city council has been keen to support and foster independents through a difficult year or so.
Research from the Local Data Company released in October last year showed 18 per cent of shops in the wider Birmingham area lying vacant and obviously the smaller operations have found it hardest to survive.
Carol Anderson, Business Co-ordinator at Birmingham City Council (BCC), commented: “No-one wants to go to a city and be faced with all of the same big name retailers; you need independents to bring something different.
“We started a pilot programme for retail independents because the economic recession saw a lot of independents struggling to pay their rents and we wanted to keep them in the city because they are a very important part of the retail mix here.”
Grants of up to £10,000, out of an available pool of £1.8 million, were given by the BCC to local businesses in order to help them expand to new premises.
One of the beneficiaries of the Working Neighbourhood’s fund was Michelle Jamie, owner of the Wysteria Lane luxury lifestyle store in the Pavilions centre, which is a stone’s throw away from the Bullring and Black.
Jamie admits that dampened consumer spending puts additional pressures on independents due to smaller margins but points to the success of its January sales period to show what can be done.
“After starting in the new year we only have a couple of discount items left,” she said.
“If you look at some of the big chains there will still be mountains of sale items left in-store, with consumers still waiting for prices to drop to ridiculously cheap levels.”
Focusing on quality and a luxurious customer experience Wysteria Lane has been able to expand beyond its initial two stores in Shrewsbury, through local funding and a willingess to take a risk with this new city centre store.
Jamie added: “You have to work hard there is no point in sitting still and complaining that it is tough.
“You have to think about doing other things and I think it will be the brave people who are willing to bring new brands and ideas into their business that will succeed.”
New brands are certainly all the talk of the Bullring right now with fashion retailer Forever 21 recently taking a huge three-floor store in the centre.
With only two voids at the retail hub and six years of continuous growth behind it Walley is very confident about the future.
Even the heavy snow in December, which reduced footfall by 50,000-60,000 on the weekend of the 18th, did not stop sales being up for the month year-on-year and its full-year result was apparently well ahead of any British Retail Consortium national average.
Impending government cuts will certainly not make 2011 easy for traders but having been named fourth best retail centre in the UK last month, Birmingham seems well set for the challenges ahead.
Walley commented: “We have biggest local council in Europe and of course there are going to be hits to local funding in the next 12 months but employment in the area is going in the right direction and we have a positive outlook.
“The city has been dramatically transformed in ten years or so, it is now a great place to visit not just for retailing but also for eating and theatre, it has just so much offer.”