How can we lure all the shoppers back?

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COMPETITION from Gunwharf Quays and the stalling of Portsmouth city centre’s Northern Quarter scheme have seen the number of shoppers in Commercial Road plummet, The News can reveal.

The number of shoppers visiting Commercial Road each day on average has fallen from 56,373 in January 2000 to 33,448 in the same month this year.

Although the latest figure is up on the lowest January figure – 29,116 in 2009 – it is still a drop of 41 per cent.

And traders and city policy makers have admitted frustration that thousands have stayed away.

Ken Higson, the 70 year-old owner of Beads Bazaar, on nearby Charlotte Street, said: ‘Something must be done. If my store had been losing customers I’d do something about it, with a sale, or promotion, but the council seems to be doing nothing. If people at the council were running a limited company they’d have to answer a lot of questions about what’s going on.

‘They’ve killed Charlotte Street. It’s an urban slum. The council must encourage premium shops to come here, or there’s no way back.’

Portsmouth’s city centre manager Barry Walker admitted there were obstacles to improving Commercial Road and Charlotte Street.

But he argued the centre was performing well, and is encouraged that numbers have increased since last year.

He said: ‘At the north end of the street, and on Charlotte Street, the stalling of the Northern Quarter development due to the economic situation is the obstacle. Footfall figures are down and they’re a concern, though it’s good more people are visiting than this time in 2010. But the major reason for the fall is the effect of Gunwharf Quays. We have three urban centres, Commercial Road, Southsea centre and Gunwharf, and footfall’s split between them.’

Prior to Gunwharf opening, analysts estimated Commercial Road would suffer a 12 per cent drop in visitor numbers.

It was hoped that would quickly recover, thanks to investment and visitors attracted to the city by the new centre.

But Mr Walker said: ‘The Northern Quarter was also to bring people to Commercial Road. Because that hasn’t happened, people haven’t come as we hoped. The economic crisis, rising internet sales and the effect of Southampton’s retail offer on the city have also had an effect.

‘But the south end of Commercial Road, unaffected by the plans, is thriving, with no empty stores now Primark is extending into the former Woolworths. It’s a good mix of shops and people come here to visit them. We must pay attention to Charlotte Street, but new shops are opening there, such as the Sue Ryder store and Hong Kong Tea Bar. We’ve improved Commercial Road with new benches, the refurbishment of the fountain, and new trees. Visitor numbers have increased for the last two years, and unlike Southampton, our offer to visitors includes the seafront and tourist activities. Southampton offers only shops.’

Market traders hire pitches on Commercial Road between Cascades shopping centre and Charlotte Street on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Travis Beaumont runs Warwick and Son Fruiterers. He said: ‘My dad’s had a stall here for 50 years and says trade’s down in the last few years. There are too many empty shops. If there were more shops, more people would visit. Empty shops look a bit shameful.’

Shoe stall owner Ian Bell added: ‘Trade has dropped, but it’s due to people not having much money. Lots of people come past, but they’re not buying. I’ve been here 15 years and things have got worse. Shops have cut prices to get people in. It’s hard to see what the council can do. They could replace broken paving stones. They’re going to replace stall canopies, which will help. They could promote the market better.’

Tony Hull, owner of the Sock Stall, said: ‘I’ve been here 20 years. It’s a very difficult time. All of us, traders, shop owners and the council, can work together to bring more visitors.’

The city council’s leader for regeneration, Cllr Mike Hancock, said: ‘The north end of Commercial Road looks and feels better than it has for some time. People won’t spend big money opening shops there because they know in a few years they’ll have to make way for the Northern Quarter redevelopment. But footfall’s up and there are fewer empty units. We’ve had to make the best of a bad job after the Northern Quarter didn’t happen when we expected, but we’ve spent money and there’s reason to be optimistic. The area’s better, and better used, than it has been for a long time.’

The council’s strategic director Kathy Wadsworth said: ‘We’ve been investing in the city centre and with hard work from local retailers this has resulted in more shoppers. We will spend £50,000 on canopies for market traders, which will improve the image of Charlotte Street.

Gunwharf Quays drew people from the city centre but we’ve worked hard to make people aware we have three shopping destinations – Southsea, the city centre and Gunwharf Quays.’