With vacancy rates for town centre shops lower than the national average, towns in the north of the county are well prepared for the Christmas shopping period.
Figures estimated by town centre managers show that Kettering, Corby, Wellingborough, and Rushden have lower shop vacancy rates than the national average, which stands at 14.6 per cent.
Helical Bar, which owns Corby’s town centre has geared up for the festive season by printing 60,000 gift guides to be dispatched to homes in the north of the county.
The 16-page magazine is designed to publicise Corby’s retail offer, showcasing a variety of gifts and where to buy them in the town.
Town centre manager Dan Pickard said: “It’s all about reminding people that Corby is here and what our retail offer is.
“Lots of homes are being built in the north of the county and for those that are new to the area, it’s about telling them that we’re here and this is what is available from our town centre.
“I think we’ve got the strongest retail offer in north Northamptonshire and we like to shout about that as much as we can.
“The booklet will have Christmas gifts for people that are available in our shops, including the nationals and the independents, and it will have a plan of the town, including places to eat, so their stay is as pleasurable as possible.”
Duncan Walker, investment director of Helical Bar, said that the firm’s last estimation was that the town had a nine per cent vacancy rate.
He claims it was over 10 per ent before the firm took over the running of the centre last year, and units have recently been leased to Greenwoods, Henderson Connellan, and the Card Factory.
He said: “The figures show that it is not all doom and gloom.
“There’s lots of things happening, including the market being re-located and refurbishment and I think the local population can see that.
“Corby has turned into a destination town for shopping and I think it serves local people well too.”
In Kettering, there are 45 units vacant out of 350 in the centre – a rate of 12 per cent. The Newlands Centre’s occupancy rate stands at 97 per cent.
Recently, the town got its first big-name for the restaurant quarter in Market Place, while a planning application was recently passed for a Mazza Indian restaurant in Horsemarket, with the council claiming there is interest from other businesses to pitch up in town.
There are also plans for late night shopping which starts from Thursday, November 29.
The council’s economic regeneration manager Alex Jelley said: “We are seeing more retailers expressing an interest in moving to Kettering and the more that come, the more that want to come.
“It is clear that Kettering is bucking the national trend and it is exciting to see the mood change in the town centre and a feeling of confidence return.”
In August, Wellingborough Business Improvement District (BID) carried out a survey and members claim they found that only 28 shops out of a total of 342 were empty – a rate of just eight per cent. This is the lowest vacancy rate in the north and east of the county.
A spokesman for the council said: “All town centres across the country have suffered a bit during the recession but Wellingborough has fared better than most, and we are very proud of that fact.
“There has been a lot of work done to improve the town centre recently, and even more is planned including major new developments and work to preserve our heritage buildings.
“We have a very active BID, enthusiastic traders with a wide range of independent shops and high street names, and it’s free to park here.”
East Northamptonshire Council estimates that 21 units out of a total of 269 are vacant in Rushden’s town centre.
This means that 12.3 per cent of the town is vacant.
Rushden, Corby and Kettering all received £10,000 of Government money to invest in their centres after being chosen as Mary Portas Town Team Partners last week.
With our towns doing better than the national average for vacancy rates, we asked shoppers what they thought of their town centres.
Clark Mitchell, 38, of Sycamore Drive, Kettering, said: “I think Kettering is really good.
“I can do all my Christmas shopping in the town centre.
“I work in Hinckley but Kettering is so much better – it’s good, so much more variety.
“A good example is the butcher’s in Gold Street.
“When I moved here two years ago, that shop was small but they have really expanded.”
Val Barham, 64, of Tennyson Road, Rushden, prefers to shop in Wellingborough.
She said: “I don’t really use Rushden town centre except for Asda.
“I prefer the bigger outlets to the smaller ones.
“Wellingborough has a lot more variety so I find myself shopping there.
“It has Morrisons and Marks and Spencer.”
Wellingborough has the lowest vacancy rate in the north and east of the county, and local residents have said the town has most of the shops they need.
Brenda Garnham, 63, of Windsor Road, Wellingborough, said: “I don’t use anywhere else but Wellingborough as the shops and market are brilliant.
“It’s been smartened up too and that will only help the town centre.
“I think the town could do with a few more children’s shops and stores like Marks and Spencer, but it’s got the majority of what I need.
“I come from Stevenage and can’t imagine going back there.”
A positive outlook
Adrian House, owner of PW House Jewellers, in Rushden, is also chairman of the town’s chamber of trade.
He said: “I think this year we’ve had seven or eight new shops open up on the High Street so it’s not all doom and gloom.
“Okay, we’ve lost some but we’ve also gained some.
“What we can offer people is something different.
“We’ve got 100 independent shops here and they tend to sell the stuff you won’t find in the multi-nationals.
“We’re all having to compete with the internet but I think the amount of small traders is our selling point.”
John Cable, chairman of Wellingborough BID, said: “We are very, very pleased with our vacancy rate and indeed for the whole area. There is a lot of activity going on in the town and we offer free parking and a range of shops so that’s a good reason for people to come and visit us.”
Mr Cable also said the BID has organised reindeer and snow cannons to take pride of place during the Christmas lights switch-on festivities on Saturday, November 24.
Matt Fountain, owner of Bewiched coffee house in High Street, Kettering, says he gets on average 1,600 customers through his door every week since opening in the town nine weeks ago.
He said: “When I looked round here this time last year, several units were empty.
“Now they are all occupied and I think it’s safe to say that Kettering is on the up.”