With all-important seasonal retail figures pouring in, Peter Jackson talks to Richard Toynbee, centre manager of Durham's Prince Bishop's shopping centre.
IT’S hard going out there, on the High Street, there’s no question about it. Retailers are feeling the squeeze with rapidly-changing patterns of shopping and consumers who are reluctant to part with cash unless it’s for a bargain.
Richard Toynbee, centre manager for Prince Bishops Shopping Centre in Durham tells me: “The last quarter of the year has been pretty tough. We’ve not been helped by the weather. If it’s cold, even if it’s snowy, people tend to get wrapped up and come into Durham but with the amount of water that has been coming down, it has put people off coming into the city.”
Sales in the centre for October were about 1% down on the previous year and November was about 2% down. But, to provide some seasonal cheer, early indications are that for the last week after Christmas tenants are reporting positive figures. Toynbee anticipates sales will be up but doubts margins will, as retailers have been forced into heavy discounting.
“It’s been a very tough year for many retailers and certainly the last quarter has not helped us in Durham,” he adds.
Despite this, when we meet in a conference room at Prince Bishops, Toynbee looks relaxed, even cheerful. And he has good reason for that.
He notices me studying a rather angry looking scrape on the tip of his nose and laughs, volunteering that this was the result of a tussle with his 10-month-old son Alfie, with whom he and partner Eleanor have just spent their first Christmas – tremendous fun for a 47-year-old dad.
“It has absolutely changed my life and it’s fantastic, absolutely fantastic,” he says and adds, with a laugh, “... most of the time.”
Toynbee himself was born in Lincoln in 1965, the son of an electrician. His first job was as a paperboy, progressing to a milk round and then he went on to working Saturdays at Woolworths. After leaving school he became an apprentice electrician.
“For us university wasn’t really there,” says Toynbee. “I didn’t go to grammar school, I went to secondary school and university never really cropped up, I just followed my dad really.”
His father set up his own business, which he joined but soon wanted a change of direction.
They had done some work for shopping centres so when the chance came, Toynbee, then 28, took the opportunity to become the operations manager of a shopping centre in Lincoln.
Then, in 1998, he was given the chance to come to Durham as technical services manager of Prince Bishops which was then being built.
For him and Eleanor, Durham was not terribly different from the ancient cathedral city of Lincoln, but they were still bowled over.
“It is a cliché but the North East is so friendly, we have made some really good friends up here and we have decided to make this our home,’ he says.
Within three years he had been made centre manager. Now Prince Bishops has 46 tenants, it gets some 5.3 million visitors a year and the car park takes just under 600,000 cars a year.
He is proud of what has been achieved, developing a retail scheme in the heart of the city, and sees the centre as a real asset to Durham, bringing new shops, jobs and car parking space.
But was Prince Bishops’ gain Milburngate [now the Gate] shopping centre’s loss?
“I don’t think so,” says Toynbee. “I think just three or four retailers came out of the Gate and moved up to Prince Bishops and I think Durham as a city demanded a bigger retail offer and we’ve never seen the Gate as a competing offer. I think there’s room in the city and we need both shopping centres to be trading to their maximum potential.”
And that, as was mentioned, is the challenge. The harsh winds of economic downturn have been felt in Durham as elsewhere.
“I used to say that Durham sat in its own little micro-climate. We get information fed in from approximately 80 other shopping centres within our group and Durham always used to be sitting there very comfortably from a visitor numbers point of view and from sales but it has been the weather effect that has really driven us down this year.”
There is, of course, competition from the Metrocentre but that has always been there as long as Prince Bishops and its competition it has learned to live with.
Toynbee sees a greater threat to Durham city centre coming from edge of town retailing in Durham City Retail Park and the Arnison Centre.
When the Arnison Centre in Pity Me was restricted to bulky goods and white goods it complemented the city centre but it has merged withneighbouring Mercia Retail Centre and the planning consent has also been merged giving greater flexibility.
Now there are more fashion outlets and a new Marks & Spencer is being built, all of which presents a serious threat to shopping in the city centre.
Of even greater concern is the global threat from the remorseless rise in online shopping. According to the British Retail Consortium figures, December saw a 17.8% rise in online non-food sales and, during that month the internet’s share of all retail sales jumped from 10% to nearer 15%.
“When you look at the figures showing how the internet has gone in the last two months of the year, it’s a phenomenal worry – a massive worry,” says Toynbee. “It’s going to be very difficult for us to combat.
“I know from talking to people over Christmas and visiting friends, the amount of people who have bought over the internet is enormous and they are saying they have children at home, it’s raining and they can sit at the computer and it can be delivered within 24 or 48 hours.”
But Toynbee is leading a fightback. He has been a prime mover behind the city’s, Business Improvement District, BID, project.
This involves city centre businesses working in partnership and – through a 1.5% levy on business rates – spending more than £1.5m on attracting shoppers over the next five years.
Retailers were balloted on the scheme last October and 86% by number voted in favour and 76% by rateable value.
Toynbee was chairman of the BID Task Group which has worked on making the project a reality over the last two years.
He first saw the scheme working a few years ago when he did a study tour in South Africa, which he won as a prize from the British Council of Shopping Centres annual conference. He visited some 16 shopping centres over 11 days in Johannesburg, Durban and Capetown.
“You could literally see from where a BID stopped and then where the normal street started and the transformation from the investment in that area,” he recalls.
The idea came to the UK and a similar scheme was launched in Newcastle in 2009.
“It was talked about a little bit in Durham. We had a group called Durham City Forum and I was involved in that and then we started to throw this idea around and eventually we managed to get some support through the Durham City Area Action Partnership which allowed us to do a feasibility study that showed there was an appetite for a BID.
“From that point we generated a bit more money supported by the county council and then pushed it through but it has been a long old road.”
The BID will be formally launched in February, the task group will become a board of directors of a limited company, of which he is chairman, and a BID manager will be recruited.
The plan is to promote Durham through marketing and events. BID will support existing events and introduce another four over the year: an Easter event for families; a fashion week; Christmas lights switch-on and a Winter Festival.
It will investigate setting up a Durham app and a Durham website to allow retailers to showcase offers and discounts. The business plan also provides for enhanced floral displays, city ambassadors on the streets, extension of park and ride hours, and central procurement in areas such as trade waste, insurance and recycling.
“It’s an opportunity for businesses in the city centre to work together to try to combat some of those macro and micro factors that are affecting everybody’s trade,” says Toynbee.
He believes that the only way to meet the threat from online shopping is to improve the experience of shopping on the High Street with a focus on customer service.
“We have run the retail awards now for six years which recognise excellence in customer service. So, that’s what we have got to try to keep doing, making sure that if the weather’s nice it’s a fantastic day out so you can come and do your shopping and go out on the river or whatever.
“It’s about trying to give that experience. We’ve all got to look at that experience, from the retailers to the shopping centre, and make sure the customers get value for money and that might not just be in the price of the product but in everything else that goes with it.”
He fears that Durham City lacks sufficient family leisure attractions. It is popular as a party city in the region but there is no bowling or multi-screen cinema.
However, despite all the problems, he remains optimistic and ambitious. Prince Bishops is limited in terms of physical expansion but Toynbee says there are some plans to possibly “extend vertically” and for some development by the riverside for leisure outlets.
“But the way the market is at the moment it’s very difficult and we have to wait until we can identify the right tenants for the right space,” he says.
And his own ambitions?
“I don’t see myself moving on to another shopping centre or something like that but who knows, with other business interests? But the North East is where we have decided to settle.”
He points out that they are settled, Eleanor has a childcare business in the city and, of course, there is now Alfie.