High street shopping in Derby

Sadler Gate

Sadler Gate - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Is Derby city centre becoming ‘more diverse and multi-functional, attractive for living, working and playing’?

Rachel Priest, Team Leader at the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust store

Rachel Priest, Team Leader at the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust store - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Over the last few years, you have probably read numerous articles about the decline of the High Street. This isn't one of them, even though it's about the state of Derby's High Street, in particular its two Business Improvement Districts (BIDs): the Cathedral Quarter (CQ) and St Peters Quarter (SPQ). One has to acknowledge that retail is shrinking as online shopping expands: the recent news that Derby's iconic department store Bennetts had gone into administration was a symptom of that. However, a closer look at Derby city centre shows that the High Street is not dying - it's changing. It is now not just a retail space but a district for business, leisure and living.

In surveying Derby's retail scene, the news that a buyer has come forward for Bennetts is also not only welcome but significant. The administrators are confident that the buyer 'will be able to revive the store whilst also preserving everything that is loved about the Bennetts brand.' The positive sides of this proposed purchase reflect the importance of Bennetts' place in the Cathedral Quarter, Derby's historic 'old town', which has seen a decade of regeneration.

Ironically, and crucially, that regeneration began on the cusp of the recession. New government legislation enabled the creation of a Business Improvement District, so Derby Cathedral Quarter was created in 2007 to counter the arrival of the Westfield shopping centre (now Intu) at the other end of the city. The creation of the Cathedral Quarter - encompassing an area including Iron Gate, Sadler Gate, Queen Street, The Wardwick and The Strand - was also vital because in 2009 Derby topped a national table of struggling towns and cities, with nearly a quarter of its shops lying empty and many in disrepair. Ian Ferguson, Director of Partnerships for Better Business (pfbb UK) - the contract managers for the Cathedral Quarter - believes that had the CQ not embraced the BID and the Cathedral Quarter name, 'It would not have benefited from the great improvements or attracted the investment it has seen to date.'

Through both the CQ and Derby City Council working with Historic England, since 2009 nearly 100 properties in Derby have been refurbished - mostly in the CQ. There is a thriving restaurant and café scene, with restored street furniture, newly branded car parks and Rangers to assist the increasing number of visitors.

Captions sent to Joy Hales

Captions sent to Joy Hales - Credit: Ashley Franklin

The galvanised Cathedral Quarter also inspired the creation of St Peters Quarter, leading to similar improvements such as more hanging baskets and flower planters, increased signage and Rangers. Derby City Council has also worked with SPQ and other partners to provide the paving that enhances the café promenade feel around the Costa building and, more recently, the Made in Derby 'Walk of Fame'. Also, given the negative publicity surrounding the SPQ's problem with anti-social behaviour, it is heartening to know that last year the SPQ and CQ and its partners were jointly shortlisted for an industry award in recognition of 'the pioneering work undertaken to address crime and anti-social behaviour.'

The beauty of Business Improvement Districts is that virtually all these improvements have been put in place by those businesses operating in the BID area. As the CQ is funded through each business paying a levy, the businesses themselves decide how to use their pot of money to enhance their area.

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In 2016, the work done by CQ was rewarded when it won the National BID of the Year and then the Best City Location prize in the Great British High Street Awards. This led Martin Langsdale, Chair of the CQ Board, to declare proudly that 'the CQ has bucked the national trend, with footfall and vacancy levels better than the national average.' As a result, retail businesses are still being drawn to the Cathedral Quarter: recent arrivals include quality national names Whitestuff, Dr Martens, Joules and Jack Wills, plus TK Maxx in St Peters Quarter - who one might more probably expect to see in the Intu centre. At the same time, the Cathedral and St Peters Quarters remain singular attractions for their independent shops. A recent UK poll revealed that over half those surveyed prefer to spend money with independent local retailers, mainly because individual, niche outlets are more likely to give a tailored service.

This is especially true of clothes shops. Step inside the elegant ladies fashion house Emily Brigden on Iron Gate and manager Lesley Heldreich affirms that customer service is paramount. 'As online shopping grows, customer service is more important than ever,' states Lesley. 'More than just shop with us, we can offer the whole package whereby you can see, touch, feel and try our clothes and accessories. We offer expert advice on colours and styles, and generally give our customers a satisfying experience. Many customers become friends. You can't get that online.'

Imogen Young, Carol Thimas and Anne Hoolahan of The Sanctuary

Imogen Young, Carol Thimas and Anne Hoolahan of The Sanctuary - Credit: Ashley Franklin

There are a few retailers - largely the chains - who arguably have the best of both worlds in trading both on the street and online, such as Bang & Olufsen, Brigdens and florists Selena's. Moreover, although Emily Brigden doesn't offer online shopping, it has taken advantage of the popularity of social media and has a large, devoted following on Facebook and Instagram, where the shop can post updates on new stock and discount offers.

The independent fashion store Canopy is also flourishing in the face of internet competition. The key to this, according to director James Hurdis, is the value of 'curating' a selection of clothes, offering 'smaller but more interesting brands.' Also, these clothes are tailored to the brands, colours and styles that he knows his customers crave.

Better still for Canopy, a recent refit has brought their men's and women's shops on two separate levels under one roof. 'We now have a light, airy and spacious place,' says James, 'and our customers love it.'

Another factor to the advantage of a shop like Canopy is that James has been there for 26 years, giving strength to the argument that High Street shops come with a sense of engagement and trust which e-commerce sites struggle to replicate.

If you want another argument for 'bricks rather than clicks' (the bricks and mortar of a shop rather than an online store) step inside Antiques in the Quarter, opened five years ago by Luke Fletcher. It's obvious that Luke does a fair trade in entertaining banter as well as in his 'random assortment of quality bric-à-brac', as he calls an Aladdin's Cave of goods which is dominated by a huge selection of Royal Crown Derby.

The latest presence on Sadler Gate is Derbyshire Wildlife Trust's first urban shop, opened only three months ago. At first glance, it appears to be a charity shop but it's actually a mix of new and pre-loved items, with a vintage feel to the clothes. 'We love it here in the Cathedral Quarter,' says Team Leader Rachel Priest. 'It's a pleasing environment, it feels looked after and cared for, it's a warm-hearted community of retailers, and there's always something going on. It's also nice to be close to the peregrine falcons!'

There have also been recent arrivals in the Cathedral Quarter's food and drink sector - Blok Kitchen & Bar, Milk & Honey Deli, Bear Coffee Shop and The Squashed Tomato - while the Cathedral café The Sanctuary has recently had an extensive refurbishment, and there's a micro pub called The Worm Has Turned opening soon. The Office Steakhouse is a newcomer to St Peters Quarter which held its first outdoor vegan market in 2018.

The SPQ has also seen the development of the Riverlights where the well-established Genting Casino has been joined by a new leisure facility: Gym City, an impressive 12,000 sq ft health and fitness centre, described as 'a fusion between Gymnasium, Dance and Martial Arts.'

For a full appreciation of the changing face of the High Street, cultural attractions should also be taken into account. The two quarters not only have Derby Theatre, Derby Museum & Art Gallery, Déda and QUAD, but also stage Derby Festé, Derby's photography, book, film, folk and comedy festivals and live Saturday street entertainments.

At the turn of the millennium, not one hotel bed space or square foot of office space had been built in the city for more than 20 years, but today there are several major hotels and numerous new buildings for both business and residential use.

All these factors coalesce to explain how the High Street in Derby is no longer about retail but detail. As Ashley Lewis, Senior BID Project Manager for pfbb UK comments: 'I get tired of hearing about the demise of the High Street. It's not dying, it's evolving. We've long recognised that a city centre like ours is being re-defined as a place in which people can live, work, shop, eat and relax.

'People used to come in to the High Street primarily to shop. Now, they come for an experience - for an event or to dine or to catch up with friends over a coffee. Shopping may be included in their itinerary but it's no longer the be-all and end-all of their visit. When it does come to shopping, our retailers share the mantra of service coupled with quality, and many of them offer something you can't get anywhere else. However, when you look at the bigger picture, Derby welcomes over eight million visitors per year, with over £425 million spent not just in our shops but at hotels, restaurants and attractions.'

Ashley points to this spring when 100,000 visitors came to QUAD's biennial FORMAT photography festival, and a record 50,000 visitors viewed the da Vinci exhibition at Derby Museum & Art Gallery, both of which increased footfall in the High Street. QUAD itself attracts 350,000 visitors a year. As Ashley points out: 'Once you acknowledge that QUAD and the Museum & Art Gallery are part of the High Street experience, you see not decline but diversification.'

The growth of the student population - the University houses 29,000 students - is another plus factor for Derby. As Ashley points out: 'We are looking at how to best serve students - we have a University representative on the BID board - as well as young adults, many of whom increasingly favour alternative options such as vegan cafés, ice cream parlours and escape rooms. For the coming generations of adults, we need to become a "smart" city - one that embraces technology. Let's face it, in five years' time we could be dealing with driverless cars, never mind electric ones. There are also opportunities to improve the surrounding environment and visitor experience by making the city greener.'

Ashley is especially keen to highlight that largely unseen aspect of Derby which has enriched the High Street: the business sector. Did you know that professional services account for nearly a third of the 600 businesses in the Cathedral Quarter?

'Everything you want for your business is here on your doorstep,' declares Ashley. 'For one thing, this historic part of the city has a character that cannot be replicated in modern out-of-town business parks. Our rental rates are lower than neighbouring cities and being in the city means that buses are widely available. The Cathedral Quarter also chimes with the way people like to do business today, such as holding meetings with clients in cafés and coffee shops, and because businesses are close to each other it's easy and convenient to do business with them. Also, the more offices there are in the city, the more potential customers there are for the shops, restaurants and cafés.'

There are 110 staff alone inside Smith Partnership on Friar Gate. Formerly housed inside Heritage Gate where the staff worked in rooms on separate floors, their new office is a modern, airy, open-plan space with a communal atmosphere and, with sound absorption boards that cleverly appear like a design element, it is a remarkably quiet workplace.

'We love being in the Cathedral Quarter,' says Fraser Cunningham, a partner at the firm. 'Its amenity value is huge, it feels like a community, the BID gives us focus and an identity and as we businesses have to pay a levy, we make sure we spend it wisely. Funding the Rangers, for example, was a great move - they do a sterling job as ambassadors of our High Street.'

Every business also has access to the Cathedral Quarter's own loyalty card scheme, with the award-winning solicitors Flint Bishop also running its own Employee Reward Scheme which gives their 170 staff a range of discounts and bespoke offers from local Cathedral Quarter businesses. Another large, notable business in the CQ is Smith Cooper who have tastefully and respectfully transformed the interior of St Helen's House. Here is surely one of the most magnificent boardrooms in the British business world.

There is cause for even more optimism when one considers that 2020 will see the reopening of the Assembly Rooms, Guildhall Theatre, Market Hall and the Silk Mill Museum of Making. The blight that is Becketwell - which includes Duckworth Square - might soon be transformed into a £200 million mixed development of residential, office and leisure uses. There is also to be a further increase in residential developments in Derby, including the DRI site which alone will see 800 new homes.

It's little wonder that John Forkin of Marketing Derby believes that the city is 'excitingly moving towards a more diverse, multi-functional city centre, attractive for living, working and playing.'