‘People don’t think of York as a place to come and shop now’ – retailer fears for the city

Closed after five years… Florence Wren. Photograph: Jack Gevertz

City officials have been accused of “burying their heads in the sand” over the state of retailing in York by a business owner who has shut his independent shop after five years.

Mike Oakenfull and his wife Elen ran Florence Wren next to Bootham Bar since 2011.

But on Saturday (May 29) the couple closed the vintage sweetshop for the final time after a buyer failed to come forward to take it on.

Mike, who also works as a museum and exhibition designer, told YorkMix: “We would like to sell it as ongoing business but we didn’t get anybody going for it.

“It’s our end of lease and we had to renew it for another five years so we decided to call it a day.”

He said the customers were very sad, but they had “a lovely few hours at the end of Saturday from people who enjoyed being in the shop”.

Footfall in decline

Customers were very sad to see the shop go. Photograph: Florence Wren
Customers were very sad to see the shop go. Photograph: Florence Wren

One of the main reasons for Mike and Elen’s decision to close was down to declining footfall. Another was lack of help from the council.

When YorkMix asked City of York Council for footfall figures for Bootham, we were told that the five cameras in place to count did not cover this area.

Mike said:

Unless you’re a coffee shop or a bar, I think most people don’t think of York as a place to come and shop now. But more for leisure activities.

The car parking is expensive. It doesn’t seem to be an even-playing field.

We were hoping to see a rise in footfall when the York Art Gallery opened.

It used to be really good, and we used to be confident, but not in the last year or so. We would think hard about taking it on for another five years or so if it was like it used to be, but it isn’t really.

Mike has urged the council to do more to help the retail trade in York.

“I think the council are in denial about the state of retail in York,” he said.

“As they are being cut, they are looking more and more at the properties they own as a way of earning income, but they are not thinking about the other things they are doing to discourage people coming into town.

“Business rates will be cut next year, but rents are still quite expensive in York.

“A lot of retailers feel strongly about it, and I do feel the council are doing nothing, burying their head in the sand and feel that people will just take on leases and they are not going to.”

Helping businesses thrive

We asked city leaders for their response to what Mike said.

cllr-ian-gillies-500We are sorry to hear when any business closes in York.

The council recognises the importance of retail in the city centre and with partners and Make It York we’ve taken active steps to promote the city to help local businesses thrive, ensure everyone enjoys York’s unique heritage and make our city centre a better place to visit and shop.

As a council we’ve supported the creation of a Business Improvement District (BID) for York which looks to offer businesses more of a say and the ability to decide how they might use their resources to benefit local businesses and the city’s economy.

We are also committed to becoming an even more business friendly council so we can continue to support York’s businesses and help them to grow.

With regards to parking, standard hourly charges have been frozen for the last two years and are in line with other cities and towns. Shoppers can use the council’s car park in Foss Bank which costs from £1 an hour when paying by mobile phone.

York’s Park & Ride service also provides an alternative to parking in the city centre with over 4.5 million passengers now using it annually.

– Cllr Ian Gillies, executive member for transport and planning

andrew-sharp-make-it-yorkWe’re sorry to hear of this closure. There can be any number of reasons why a business may stop trading.

Factors could include difficulties in accessing funding, increasing business costs, a change in direction, personal circumstances and so on.

Many retailers experienced a difficult start to the New Year.

However, we are seeing signs of a recovery; hotel occupancy rates are strong for example and Easter saw a 20% increase in footfall on Parliament Street year on year, in part due to the new Easter festival.

York continues to be an attractive proposition for retailers, however, the number of business closures needs to be monitored and we’re working in partnership across the city to help ensure every business has the very best chance of success.

– Andrew Sharp, head of business at Make It York

andrew-lowson-york-bidIt’s always sad to hear about a business closing and some of the latest figures do show a reduction in footfall in town centres across the UK.

The York BID is in its infancy, but it is already looking at projects that can promote the city as a shopping destination – for example, looking at online and direct marketing initiatives which are designed to help footfall and subsequently spend.

This is no comfort in this instance, but the York business community know footfall in town centres is an issue, which is one of the reasons a BID was established; allowing businesses an activity stream separate from council initiatives.

– Andrew Lowson, executive director for York Business Improvement District