‘Shoppers will be less forgiving’ – retail roundtable discusses future of Exeter High Street in post-Covid world

Exeter High Street needs to be more than just a shopping hub in order to survive in a post-Covid-19 world, a retail roundtable has suggested. 

Some 100 traders and representatives took part in the event which heard the city centre must adapt to carry on thriving after the coronavirus crisis.

The pandemic has seen city centre footfall drop while online shopping has increased further.

Only ten per cent of those who took part in the Exeter City Futures-hosted roundtable were ‘very confident’ that the retail sector can continue to thrive.

Some 25 per cent were ‘confident’, with 46 per cent ‘only slightly confident’ and 13 per cent ‘not confident at all’.

Shoppers will be less forgiving now of anything that doesn’t make their experience easy or pleasant if they have to travel into Exeter…

Suggestions made by attendees to help the retail sector in Exeter recover included:

  • Encouraging more diversification in the city centre;
  • Making the city more attractive and the streets more walking- and cycling-friendly. along with the prospect of visiting its shops more enticing;
  • The city centre needs to not just be a retail hub, but a space to attract people so they can stay for longer and visit attractions;
  • More pedestrianisation of the city centre;
  • Offer more late-night entertainment to make it more family-friendly;
  • An electric bicycle parking network;
  • More creative substitutes for park-and-change such as extra parking around bus and train stations people use to enter the city;
  • More of a market town feel;
  • Ensure people are given confidence to return to shopping as they may only have one shot at this;
  • Low traffic neighbourhoods to enable spaces to be better used.

Feedback from the attendees of the Exeter City Futures-hosted roundtable event.

Feedback from the attendees of the Exeter City Futures-hosted roundtable event.

Sebastian Blevings, branch manager at John Lewis Exeter, said people had to remember that retail was in some trouble before the pandemic.

He added: “Post-Covid, there will be the same issues but with more urgency.

“Retailers need to have a unique selling point and, assuming they do, retailers were already thinking what else they can do beyond that service.

“We are a big believer of being a bigger part in the community and feeling part of the community, rather than just somewhere people take a product off the shelf.

“Shoppers will be less forgiving now of anything that doesn’t make their experience easy or pleasant if they have to travel into Exeter.

“There are all sorts of customers who have resisted online shopping until now, but so many have succumbed and you only have to walk the streets to see the Amazon Prime vans all over the place.”

Michelle Menezes, centre manager at Princesshay, added: “It is not just as simple as putting on an event at the moment, so you have to create the energy in the city centre in a Covid-19-friendly way to ensure everyone is safe and to create that connection with the customer when you have to be a distance away.

“There is an added difficulty for independents as, with offices closed and people working from home, how do they make up of the trade if can only have two people in the store at once?”

East Devon MP Simon Jupp, whose constituency includes part of Exeter, said people had become accustomed to through the click of a mouse.

He added that there were opportunities for the city to be flexible with more late-night shopping, farmers’ markets and being more creative.

Mr Jupp said: “Social distancing remains a challenge, so I understand the clamour for clarity and it is coming.

“A two-metre distance is a challenge and I support going down to one metre to reopen the economy with confidence, but going from two metres to one metre only gets one extra person on a bus.”

All shops in Exeter have been required to complete a risk assessment to ensure they can carry out safe distancing.

Social distancing measures have been put in place to ensure the safety of shoppers, with stencils marked outside shops and throughout the City Centre and signs put up to help people keep two metres apart.

Some narrow streets are operating a one-way system.

Stores are also limiting the number of customers allowed inside.

Exeter City Council leader Phil Bialyk said: “I welcome the return of many shops in the city centre and it was good to see people using them while making sure it was safe to do so.”

The roundtable event took place on Wednesday, June 17.

Its finding will be reported to local authorities, Exeter Chamber of Commerce, and various trade and business bodies and groups.

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