The decline in Hertford’s Retail Offer

23 May 2014

Yesterday I walked though Hertford town centre and noticed that the shop in Railway Street once occupied by Thomas Cook was now empty and available for rent. The staff have apparently been relocated to Welwyn Garden City. This is another loss to the retail offer in town.

Amidst the continuing uncertainty over the future of Waitrose in Bircherley Green I believe that a more worrying trend is being overlooked. In the last month or so Hertford has lost a number of retail outlets that were essential to providing independent outlets in the face of the growth of clone towns everywhere else.

Hertford Cameras closed its doors after many years trading. I see that this is now occupied by a wedding outfitter and this is an encouraging development. However Artico in Maidenhead Street is due to close in June, East Herts Electrical in Market Place is empty, The Decorated Room is shortly to close and Hertford Pet Supplies closed its doors for the last time on Saturday just past.

Each one had their own personal reasons for closure. I count myself quite fortunate to have known many of those traders over a long period of years. As Town Centre Manager I would pop in for a chat and became friends as the years passed. I miss people like Roy Roberts at Wiggingtons. The world was always a better place after a few hours in his company whilst he railed against the problems faced by retailers in the face of local and national government interference.

This recent crop of closures is just a continuation of a pattern that I have noticed since around 2005/06. Hertford has a very low percentage of empty premises which is very much against the national trend; vacancies are filled quite quickly which is a excellent reflection on the faith people have in the town. Although one shining exception might be the old MacDonalds in Maidenhead Street

However many of the new businesses fall into the categories of coffee shops, bars, delicatessens and the hair and beauty sectors. We have lost many ladies fashion outlets, home accessories and antiques such as Wiggintons and specialist independents such as Margaret Hart’s haberdashery and Marshalls Bike Shop.

I moved to Hertford in the early 1980’s and it was known as a centre for the antique trade. All of the antique shops have gone with the exception of Beckwiths. In 2007 when I came to amend my original town centre database of 2005 I used it to show the make up of each street by trade and shop/office/residential use.

At this time both Tesco and Sainsburys had applications before the Planning Committee and I commented as to what effect this would have on the town if one or both were approved and what its USP might be.

My question has been partially answered by the growth in the leisure sector such as bars, coffee shops and other forms of eateries. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in this. The general opinion in town is that people would rather a shop be taken and trading than be left empty. I used to sit outside Serendipity in Bircherley Green and watch customers walk into the travel agent on one side or into the bookshop on the other whilst they or their partner waited to be served. There is a welcome symbiosis between the two different sectors.

However of late the balance seems to be towards more coffee shops, drinking establishments and hair and beauty bars than the traditional retail offer such as we used to know as ‘butcher, baker and candlestick maker’.

It is fine to come to Hertford for a coffee but when traders, residents and long time associates in town start to question what there is in Hertford to make anyone want to visit, it is time to question where this lack of a retail offer is leading.