Henley town on retail critical list

Henley-on-thames, once known for its boutiques and independent traders, is now on the retail critical list of towns unable to keep their shops open. Henley has seen a rise from 9 to 25 empty shops on its high street, and in the index of areas with the most empty shops compiled by analysts Experian, Henley has gone from 690th out of 1,000, to 188th in the space of a year, reported the Daily Telegraph.

Experian says Henley has suffered a net loss of seven independent shops in the 12 months to June. It believes the town could be braced for further closures as more big chains follow the likes of Principles, Officers Club and Zavvi into ‘pre-pack’ administrations from which only the most profitable branches survive.

Jonathan de Mello, director of retail consultancy with Experian, said: “Independent shops add to the vibrant mix of an area but owners have often taken out massive loans and are more exposed to cash flow problems and overhead costs.” Among Henley’s independent traders shutting down was Kate Carter-Windle, who closed the doors of her Bell Street boutique, Auvergne, a year ago as the credit crunch took hold. “It was very, very sad after the four years of hard work everyone had put into it,” said the 59-year-old, who gave up as she was hit with an 80 per cent rent increase just as the economic downturn began to bite.

“The recession was quite obvious to retailers long before Gordon Brown condescended to announce it officially and yet the rents continued to rise and there was no flexibility. The only ones who can afford the top rents are the chain stores. They are also the ones who can afford to be on sale during Regatta week, which is our busiest trading week of the year.

“Henley is wealthy but the bankers hadn’t been getting their bonuses and there were customers trying to haggle. They would ask ‘how much is it for cash?’.” Henley is not alone. A study last month by the Rural Evidence Research Centre (RERC) at Birkbeck, University of London, showed that country towns with large numbers of middle-class managerial and other administrative workers have been hit hardest by the recession. Country towns in all parts of the country have been affected but rises in Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) Claimant Counts are most prominent in the South East, the South West, East Midlands and the East of England regions. “Our research shows that the recession really began to hit country towns late last year,” said Professor John Shepherd, director of the RERC. “Between October 2008 and April 2009 we noted a rise in JSA Claimants in country towns of over 100,000. Furthermore, rural towns with young families and a high proportion of public service jobs have been particularly affected.”

In January, Paul Foxley closed the doors of Ashworths menswear store, which had been trading on Market Place for 40 years. “It had become a millstone around my neck,” he said. “I had been losing money for 18 months but business went off a cliff in October when the recession really took hold.” Henley is not a dying town; it ranks 13th on The Telegraph’s index of Britain’s most expensive property locations and one in three houses changes hands for more than half a million pounds. Its 11,000 inhabitants enjoy a Waitrose, a thriving weekly market and several busy restaurants.

Source: Daily Telegraph
Image: Henley Thames Path

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