President's Heartbeat – 25th May 2019

Reports of the death of Yeovil town centre are greatly exaggerated.

On my weekly travels and meetings with key stakeholders around town, I was aware that things were changing; and yet I was still getting earache about empty shops, so I felt it was time to take a step back and see what has changed during my four-year tenure as President of Yeovil Chamber. Earlier this month, I ran a head-count across the retail, leisure, hospitality, food & drink, and accommodation sectors trading in Yeovil town centre, and the results were a revelation. I found that since 2015, no less than twenty new independent operators have arrived, and all are still trading in Yeovil town centre.  Add the arrival of five national brands in the same period, and that makes a total of twenty-five new operators in four years! When I factored in an estimated ten operators across the same sectors which closed down over the same period; the maths showed that for every business closing down, 2.5 new businesses arrived in their place.

Even if my stats are slightly out, more than one shop arriving for each one lost is remarkable, given the relentless negative media coverage of the UK 'high street', and is clear evidence that Yeovil town centre is on the up. The remaining balance of the sectors in my focus consists of established nationals and independents, who have largely weathered the storm which swept UK town centres.  They are now leaner, fitter, and like our ‘new kids on the block’, embrace and harness the internet and social media as a vital part of their business model.  Indeed; some traders in the new model town centre would struggle without an online presence. The curtain has fallen on the previous retail model of the town centre, and there is a similar tale across the service and professional sectors in Yeovil town centre.

Retail will continue to be a good reason to visit Yeovil but is no longer the reason to visit.  Town centres, and Yeovil is a good example, are now about 'experience':  Diversity, events, and of course, retail.  The remaining empty shops in Yeovil are now the target for private and local authority development projects; tapping into demand, which will likely see them converted to a mix of residential, commercial and retail space.  A good example of this is Glovers Walk, our dilapidated 1970s retail centre, now under new ownership. The family-run developers are working with the local authority, to ensure their plans for Glovers Walk dovetail into the town-wide development plans of the District Council.  A key factor in the turnaround of Yeovil town centre is the ambitious and supportive local authority.  Working closely with the business sector, South Somerset District Council is investing heavily in the infrastructure, at a time when many local authorities are cutting back, and this seed investment has already attracted private commercial investment and redevelopment.

Ironically, most of the earache I receive about empty shops is from change-averse people who have lived in the town all their lives, who you think would know better than to bad-mouth their home town. Almost without exception, everyone else talks the town up. Flexible leasing, rent deals, and recent retail business rates discounts, are turning heads to Yeovil. New people with new business ideas and models continue to join in; this month saw the arrival of national retailer Dunelm, choosing Yeovil as only their second town centre outlet, plus an independent coffee house Hot Shots; both eager to get a piece of the action, and to create the new chapter as the evolution continues in Yeovil town centre.

If you are interested in knowing more about the Yeovil evolution, please message me.  Get involved at www.yeovilchamber.org or email me directly president@yeovilchamber.org

Released on 28/05/2019