Having been built on tobacco and slavery and since evolved into a music and cultural hub, Bristol is now attempting to become known for its outstanding retail offering.
In the last few years a lot has been invested in attempting to make Bristol the home of shopping for the south-west region, with a large slice of that money invested in the £500 million Cabot Circus scheme built in the city’s centre.
“Bristol was not considered a good shopping destination before Cabot opened, it was ranked around 22nd in the country despite being the UK’s 8th biggest city,” Centre Director for Cabot Circus Kevin Duffy explained to Retail Gazette.
“Now it has jumped up to number 13 on the list, a much faster rise than many predicted, and we did this by not just moving existing retailers from the town centre but by bringing new brands and labels into the region.”
The shopping centre has certainly done this, letting space to retailers such as Harvey Nichols, Hollister, Urban Outfitters and American Apparel which were unseen in the area before it opened in 2008.
With an occupancy level of 97 per cent, equating to just five void units, so many big name retailers and current footfall comfortably above the regional average, Cabot Circus is performing very well, but not all areas in the city are having the same success.
According to figures compiled by analysts at the Local Data Company (LDC) at the end of 2010, Bristol has a shop vacancy level of over 20 per cent and is one of only a few large centres in the south of the country to make it into the LDC’s 20 worst performing towns and cities.
Bristol, like many cities, is made up of a collection of separate large villages or towns spread out across a wide area, each with their unique character and business make-up.
Of the better shopping areas, Clifton village and Park Street offer lots of fashion stores, boutiques and eateries, whilst around Gloucester Road and Cheltenham Road there is a good selection of quirky independents and bars.
Speaking to retailers in these areas, you are often met with confidence and optimism although national high street sales have been struggling since the start of the year.
Alongside big name fashion stores such as L K Bennett and Whistles on Park Street you can find the alternative independent clothing store My Yard, a business which in only a few years has established itself in this much sought after location and has recently started selling an impressive range of own-label items.
Despite the continuing challenges of entertainment retailing, the manager of Plastic Wax Records on Gloucester Road was upbeat about recent sales when Retail Gazette spoke to him and thought the store’s performance was about in line with last year.
Some areas of the city have been less hospitable to retailers in 2011 however, most famously in Stokes Croft where the opening of a Tesco Express store led to large scale clashes with police by local residents.
Despite the national headlines and the close proximity of the violence to the city centre, Duffy says that the disturbances had little impact on Cabot’s trading and that most local people want big retailers in the area.
One person who might be forgiven for not wanting to see the city centre thrive is Liz Mihell, Managing Director of the John Lewis store at Cribbs Causeway - the shopping centre on the outskirts of Bristol - but this is not the case.
“I feel very positive about retail developments in Bristol, as they make the city more desirable as a destination,” Mihell said.
“Good competition is a healthy thing.”
Trading has been difficult so far this year for the anchor store of the scheme just off the M5 motorway near Patchway, with sales over ten per cent down in the year-to-date compared to 2010, the worst of any John Lewis store in the UK.
Although conceding that the start of the year has been disappointing, Mihell, who moved from a sister store in Cardiff in November, points out that the late date of Easter and extra bank holidays have distorted 2011 trading figures.
Mihell commented: “When you are the scale of regional destination that this shopping centre and our branch here is, the calendar and they way people are using their leisure time has a very big impact on the results we achieve.”
The unusually warm spring will have had a much bigger impact on the footfall at an out-of-town store, she argues, than at a city centre outlet and she points out that “in the south-west when the weather is great there are lots of things to do other than shopping”.
With a new Best Buy outlet recently joining a refurbished Currys & PC World megastore in the next door retail park and tough electrical comparisons due to last year’s football World Cup to come, things are unlikely to get a whole lot easier but Mihell is optimistic that business has started to turn round in recent weeks.
What both Mihell and Duffy agree on is that Bristol can and should be an attractive shopping destination for the whole region, with Mihell claiming that almost weekly she speaks to customers who have travelled as far as Cornwall.
Duffy is working closely with the city management organisation Destination Bristol to promote the rejuvenated centre but he also insists that the whole of the city can play in a part in attracting tourist trade.
“The way I look at it, if somebody comes to Cabot Circus parks in the car park, shops and then heads home then great,” Duffy explained.
“But if someone parks with us, shops with us, then walks to the waterfront, visits a gallery, has some lunch, and visits some shops in the centre before heading home, then that customer has had a much broader experience and they are more likely to come back, and we all win.”
Cabot Circus is aiming for a footfall figure of 20 million by the end of this year and its is clearly trading well but Duffy is aware of the city’s shop vacancy problem and knows that much works needs to be done to spread the success of his scheme around the town.