Swansea: Figures paint 'bleak' city retail picture

Swansea's retail vacancy rate is bleak reading, says one analyst

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Big name chain stores are leaving Swansea at a high rate compared with the rest of Wales, new figures for BBC Wales suggest.

The city has also seen a rise in shop vacancies, with almost one in five of its stores lying empty, according to the Week In Week Out investigation.

One marketing expert said the city needed to "get its act together".

Swansea council said it was working with a major developer to provide a new shopping centre.

Start Quote

Heather Skinner

I really think Swansea needs to get its act together and think about how it's going to grow its local independent trading sector”

End Quote Dr Heather Skinner University of Glamorgan

Research commissioned by the programme found that Llanelli had the highest vacancy rate (27.9%) and also saw the largest vacancy rise over the past three years, up 17.4%.

These figures were, however, disputed by Carmarthenshire council, which estimated a vacancy rate of about 15 - 16% for Llanelli town centre.

Other towns with high vacancy rates include, Caernarfon (23.6%), Colwyn Bay (20.3%), and Wrexham (20%).

Matthew Hopkinson, business development director with the Local Data Company, which compiled the figures for the BBC, said the data made bleak reading for Swansea.

"In terms of Swansea and the big chains, we've seen the largest reduction in the big chains across all of the centres we looked at across Wales," he said.

'Significantly higher'

"It's at nearly 6% which is significantly higher than the national average, [which is] a reduction of 0.25%.

SWANSEA LEADER'S VIEW

Swansea council leader David Phillips says: "We should not be trying to emulate Cardiff because we will not succeed.

"We need to concentrate on niche boutique retail sales.

"We need to create a physical environment that makes it attractive. It's actually to do what's going on in the area.

"If we've got pop-up shops, pop-up cafes and we've got things going on in the street, people will come.

"It's the old argument about the unique selling point. While we do need anchor tenants we do need to define the shopping experience in Swansea as different.

"It's about having the communication and vision - we've got to have some idea of what that's about.

"The problem is we've thought no further than brand recognition - but that has to be part of wider vision that recognises what's already here. We don't give independents the credit they are due."

"I can't see it getting any better because Swansea is essentially a secondary centre and we know these multiple retailers are drawing down into fewer locations and larger stores."

The loss of big chains from Swansea from December 2010 to April this year is easily the largest in Wales.

Of the towns and cities studied, only Llanelli (-3.1%) comes close, while Cardiff had seen a growth of 0.2%.

The programme took Dr Heather Skinner, a lecturer in marketing at the University of Glamorgan, to Swansea to look in more depth at some of the issues facing the city's retailers and the Welsh high street generally.

Start Quote

There needs to be a mix of small and national retailers within [Swansea] city centre and are working to develop a city centre that will attract both types of retailer”

End Quote Welsh government

She met the owners of three businesses - Peter Gowling who sells bags, bridal wear shop owner Gill Jenkins and cafe owner Luke Davies - and suggested ways in which they could attract customers and boost profits.

Dr Skinner believes independent retailers are crucial to the city's future. "I really think Swansea needs to get its act together and think about how it's going to grow its local independent trading sector," she said.

She suggested the bridal wear store should have an internet presence, but owner Mrs Jenkins was not so sure.

"I don't like the internet. I haven't even got a mobile phone," said Mrs Jenkins.

"They're buying rubbish on the internet. When they come in, some of them are lucky - some of them do get nice dresses, but most of them put the dresses in the bin or they try to return them."

Retail experts and Swansea council's new leader, David Phillips, agreed Swansea must go its own way and not "replicate and provide the same experience that you are going to get in Carmarthen, Cardiff or in Bristol".

But he told Week In Week Out that the authority had been working with major developer Hammerson to provide a new shopping centre in the city.

'Niche market'

The research suggested that one in five shops in Swansea (19.3%) is currently vacant, an increase of 14.3% over three years, the second highest increase in Wales.

Gill Jenkins Gill Jenkins does not see the need to put her Swansea bridal store on the internet

But Swansea did see the largest growth in independent retailers across the 18 towns and cities in Wales that were analysed.

A Swansea council spokesperson said: "Swansea city centre has recently been successful in attracting major retailers like Zara, H & M, Disney and SuperDry.

"Our city centre action plan includes a loyalty card scheme that's supported by 10,000 shoppers and 80 traders and, alongside the Welsh government, millions of pounds have been invested in improving the look of the city centre.

"This includes the imminent demolition of the St David's and Oldway House sites to make way for over 200 city centre car parking spaces in the short-term, pending a retail-led redevelopment. This will also help reduce the number of empty city centre properties.

"We will continue to work with our partners in the private sector, Hammerson, on a retail scheme that will greatly improve the city centre when economic conditions improve."

Cardiff had seen a small fall in its independent retailers over the same period.

The Welsh government said it was clear that town centres needed to diversify and that retail "can no longer be the sole driving force".

"Whilst we are looking for key retailers for the new city centre development, both the Welsh government and the City and County of Swansea Council recognise that there needs to be a mix of small and national retailers within the city centre and are working to develop a city centre that will attract both types of retailer," said a spokesperson.

Carmarthenshire council said Llanelli's vacancy rate was lower than the Welsh average and compared well with other similar towns.

"We do recognise that town centres across the UK have suffered a downturn in recent years, however we are working well in Llanelli to reverse that trend," said the council.

"There is a £60m regeneration programme underway which is due for completion by next spring. This includes a multiplex cinema, theatre and arts complex, restaurants, offices and bars, all of which we expect to bring a higher footfall into the town centre."

Week In Week Out: Heather on the High Street, is on BBC One Wales on Tuesday 26 June at 22:35 BST.

Latest shop vacancies

Town or city Shop vacancy rate

Source: BBC Wales - Welsh Region Analysis/Local Data Company

GB

14.6

Llanelli

27.9

Swansea

19.3

Colwyn Bay

20.3

Neath

16.2

Caernarfon

23.6

Newport

19.5

Pontypridd

14.0

Wrexham

20.0

Rhyl

17.8

Llandudno

13.9

Bridgend

12.5

Barry

16.1

Carmarthen

10.3

Port Talbot

19.9

Merthyr Tydfil

6.2

Cardiff

18.0

Abergavenny

7.4

Cwmbran

6.1

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