What we’ve learned since retail reopened in York

York BID Executive Director Andrew Lowson reflects on lessons from the ‘new normal’

Retailers aren’t cracking open the champagne yet – but it’s been a good start
At the BID we’ve spoken to a lot of retailers in York, large and small. And many are reporting a ’surprisingly positive’ start to trading. They have put the work in to create a safe shopping environment, and customers have come back. 

Some stores have done better than others
Those shops which are most reliant on tourists have yet to see their figures recover. But other stores have had a very positive start. A sports footwear specialist told me they had enjoyed their best week ever. A city department store had some trading days that were up on the same week last year, while a Coney Street retailer was meeting its weekly pre-COVID target.    

Shopping with a purpose
Retailers talked about seeing a positive ‘basket spend’ . Fewer people are browsing. Customers are going to a shop intending to make purchases. So, although footfall is significantly down on the same time last year, in some cases, spend is up.  Is this an immediate bounce-back effect, or local people wanting to support their city shops?  We must strive to ensure it is the latter.

We can learn from this behaviour
This may hold lessons for York for the future. Do we need 8 million visitors for the city to thrive? Or can the city flourish with fewer people who spend more? The BID is committed to introducing better tracking and analysis of visitors, which will monitor these trends and help inform future city centre strategy.

Bricks and mortar stores have a future
The number of people who have returned to the city centre since non-essential shops reopened revealed two truths. 1) People have missed shopping in York. 2) They feel confident enough to come back. It was great to see the benches on Parliament Street filled with people socialising while social distancing. And shoppers clearly still want the in-store experience – providing that experience is one of quality.

But the lockdown has hastened the need to have multi-channel sales
Last week I chaired a panel discussion as part of the Indie York AGM – done via video conferencing this year. And High Street champion Bill Grimsey said that the crisis has accelerated online shopping by five years. It has been positive to see many smaller York businesses take the leap online, to complement their physical store.  Those who had a strong internet presence before COVID have naturally benefitted – Betty’s cannot keep up with the online demand for their cakes!

Hospitality businesses have been given new hope, but still require support
The planned reduction of social distancing from 2m to 1m-plus, together with an opening date of 4 July for pubs and restaurants, gives some hope of a way forward for York’s hospitality industry.

I spoke in the last blog about the ongoing challenge for many of our hospitality businesses, housed in small, quirky old buildings. Many simply don’t have the space to be viable under the continuing restrictions. The BID will be working with the council on ways to open more public space and increase flexibility on certain streets. We must do everything we can to enable more of our pubs and restaurants to return to successful trading.

Some businesses are still falling through the safety net
We are still hearing stories from a lot of worried businesses which have received no government support throughout the lockdown. We have already lobbied ministers via the #RaiseTheBar campaign. This week, together with council leader Keith Aspden, I have co-signed a letter to Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick urging the government to release more funding to support businesses in York. You can read that letter here (PDF).

Certain businesses are very reliant on people returning to work
There are some traders whose business model continues to face specific challenges.  I’ve already alluded to tourist shops needing visitors from further afield, but I have also spoken to a number of popular sandwich shops/ cafes which rely heavily on lunch trade from York office workers. Until those workers return, these outlets have a limited customer base. Their needs mustn’t be forgotten or side-lined.

We must keep talking
The BID team has learned so much about the challenges, requirements, and innovations of businesses by listening to the creative people behind them. This conversation is crucial if we are to develop a strategy that delivers a strong recovery, and gets York back to its entrepreneurial best. So please do get in touch if we can help your business.