Sign of our Times: What must Dereham’s high street do to survive?
PUBLISHED: 08:30 30 January 2020 | UPDATED: 09:11 30 January 2020
As businesses face a raft of challenges and changes, THOMAS CHAPMAN reports on what the future holds for Dereham’s retail community.
It's a matter that is seemingly never far from the headlines these days.
But it is with good reason that the survival of the British high street is such a hot topic, affecting countless livelihoods and underpinning the very nature of our society.
On the face of things, Dereham - like hundreds of towns across the nation - has struggled to escape the clutches of crippling business rates, shoppers generally tightening their purse strings and the discernible shift towards internet shopping.
Shop closures have inevitably followed, and the departure of several national chains is ample proof of a challenging retail climate.
And yet, when it comes to empty shops, the town is far better off than the majority of its counterparts across Norfolk and Waveney.
Figures revealed in November showed Dereham had a vacancy rate of 7.5pc, bettered by just six of the region's other 17 biggest towns. The highest was Great Yarmouth with a vacancy rate of 18.8pc, while Cromer had the lowest with 3.2pc.
The attitude among shoppers in terms of occupied units is mixed, with many complaining about an apparent abundance of hairdressers, charity shops and takeaways.
But Phillip Duigan, a town, district and county councillor, believes there is plenty to be positive about from a business and retail perspective.
"Everywhere across the country is under pressure and we have lost some shops, but it's not all doom and gloom," said the 62-year-old.
"When you compare it to other market towns, I'd say Dereham has held its own. It's remarkable that we have several banks and a Crown Post Office still open.
"We've got a fair number of charity shops, but I don't think that is different from any other town. People get worked up about them but at least they generate footfall.
"One thing we've got to get into the habit of doing is talking up our businesses and being positive about them."
Dereham mayor Linda Monument is similarly upbeat about town's prospects over the coming years.
She believes that, while shoppers are unlikely to completely alter their habits, a distinct change could be on the horizon.
"I don't think the world will change back to how it was in 1980, where people do their shopping at the market every week," said Mrs Monument.
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"But there is a new political and environmental appetite to buy locally. If people do what they are advised from an environmental point of view, it could see a real improvement on the high street.
"What's crucial is using the smaller, independent businesses which make the town worth coming to. The people who say 'this town could be better' are the ones who need to make sure they use it."
That change in shopping habits is already in full effect according to Jamie Grimson, who became store manager at Hughes in September and is part of Dereham Retail Group.
"I've noticed a real shift, in that people have started talking about supporting their local businesses," said Mr Grimson, 27.
"People are now actually thinking 'if I don't use my high street, I will lose my high street'. That's a great first step and hopefully in 10 years' time we'll be absolutely thriving."
Over the last two years, high street staples including Sports Direct, New Look, WH Smith and Shoe Zone have shut their Dereham branches, although the latter relocated to a bigger unit within the town.
Just this month, women's clothing retailer Bonmarche closed its shop on Wright's Walk, three months after the company collapsed into administration - leaving all its Norfolk stores at risk.
But Italian eatery heavyweight Prezzo - considered a coup for Dereham at the time of opening in 2016 - has survived, despite the firm closing almost 100 restaurants as a part of a major restructure.
Meanwhile membership is ever-growing at NR Health and Fitness, which replaced the former Chattels department store on Norwich Street, while Level Up gaming café on High Street has also proved popular.
A change in the make-up of Dereham town centre - similar to Castle Quarter in Norwich - appears inevitable, and Mr Duigan says adapting will be crucial over the coming years.
"We've got to make sure we are open-minded going forward," he added. "We are not going to stop the internet, so we have to take a positive view and ask 'what can we do differently?'
"In Chattels we lost a big, upmarket store, but that has now been repurposed as a gym. Those sorts of businesses might become bigger than retail.
"Sometimes it is just about doing something slightly better or slightly differently."
Mr Grimson, who advocates businesses doing more than simply selling goods and services, says an increased leisure offering could prove fruitful - so long as community involvement is integral.
"I think you have to be aware that people don't necessarily come into the town just to shop nowadays - they come in for everything," added Mr Grimson.
"The new gym and gaming café are perhaps not what you'd see on a typical high street, but they've been very successful. If businesses get involved with what's going on in the town, I can't see why a bigger leisure offering wouldn't work.
"If we can do everything in one place, people will be happy. The hard bit is making sure businesses appeal to a wide variety of people."