Southampton shopkeepers struggle to survive

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JUNE'S fall in retail sales came as no surprise to shopkeepers in Southampton city centre, many of whom are struggling to survive with sales 15-25 per cent down on last year's levels, writes Robert Chote.

'It's very, very obvious to anyone who stands on a street corner. More people are coming into the shops, but they're not buying,' Patrick Hill, manager of the Bargate shopping centre, said.

The Bargate centre, which boasts a prime site in the heart of the city, had three of its 45 shop sites unoccupied last Christmas. Eight more have fallen vacant since then. The recession has shown little discrimination - hairdressers, stationers, fashion and household goods shops have all been hit.

No one is sure when things will get better. 'We are living in the era of the unknown now that we are in the exchange rate mechanism,' said Rashmi Chande, an independent stationer and member of the City Centre Revival Committee, recently started by the local council. He fears there will be little improvement until next year at the earliest.

Gerald Pearce, of the Southampton Hi- Fi Centre, said his sales had been stagnant for six months and were 28 per cent down on a year earlier. 'The post-election improvement just did not happen.' He added that depression in the housing market - particularly severe in the South - had hit sales for all-in-one hi-fi systems. Only the older, hard-core hi-fi enthusiast had carried on spending.

People's reluctance - or inability - to move house has hit furniture and furnishing stores especially hard. Mike Collins, of Maples, said carpet trade had slumped dramatically, while furniture was being kept afloat by price-cutting.

Mr Collins said the sales had been effective in boosting trade in the past few weeks, but added that customers were much less willing to buy on instinct, preferring to shop around.

City centre retailers are not only under pressure from recession. The economic downturn has given a new urgency to a longer-running battle between shops in the middle of the city and the vast out-of- town complexes that cluster around motorway junctions.

A prime example is the joint development between Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer on the M27 between Southampton and Portsmouth. The adjacent hi- tech stores - which cover 145,000 sq ft and pull in shoppers from a 40-mile radius - opened in October and have seen sales climb ever since.

'Access by car is the big attraction,' said Simon Webb, Marks & Spencer manager.

Plans for further expansion are already under way, causing fury among the city centre retailers.

Direct competition for customers is not the only trouble. The motorway site has attracted multiple-store chains from city centre complexes. This has severely reduced passing trade for the smaller shops in the centre.