This is how small businesses are bucking the trend to thrive in Doncaster town centre as giants like Debenhams collapse
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Things look bleak for Doncaster town centre, with Christmas just around the corner as the impact of a year of lockdowns bites. Walking down Silver Street reveals boarded up bars, and to let signs. The closing down signs at Peacocks in the landmark former Co-op building on Duke Street are plain to see.
But while some businesses are closing, others continue to thrive. And despite the gloom coming from big names like Debenhams, visitors to the town centre say they still love coming into Doncaster.
Tammy Freer set up a shop in the Frenchgate Centre in August. Back open again this week after the second lockdown, it sees small traders, many of whom make their own crafts, taking space to sell their wares. Tammy herself makes bath bombs, which she sells at the shop called The Artisan Craft, Gift and Food Emporium.
The shop is filled with traders who would otherwise be selling at Christmas markets at present – independent businesses, craftspeople and upcyclers.
But the plan is for the shop to be permanent, not just for Christmas, and she has been approached to do similar projects elsewhere.
"We have two big retailers just collapsed – I think adaptable and traditional is the way forward,” said Tammy. “We look after each other here, too. We have 14 businesses here, with some more who just display. It was really busy when we re-opened on Wednesday. At busy times we have someone counting people so we can limit numbers inside.
"Most of the things here are unique and hand made. Some people still want to pick a candle up and smell it. I think there is an element that on-line is saturated now, too.”
Outside on the streets, away from the indoor malls of the Frenchgate, William Campbell and his partner Lorna Hill run a small children’s designer fashion boutique, Little Devils, on Printing Office Street.
William says that as a small business, they have been helped in recent years by a rates rebate, which has made a difference.
He said: “We’re subject to national trends in Doncaster and the closure of a national department store is beyond the control of the town. It’s been said that big department stores may have had their day, and that it may mean more leisure and residential in town centres. There are flats above Peacocks now and that seems to be a trend.
"We are fighting against increasing internet shopping, but we need footfall. We have websites, but that doesn’t compensate for people coming through for a shop like ours. Mike Ashley did this street a big favour when he opened Flannels here.
“But I was here on Saturday, and I went up to Marks and Spencers on Wheatley Hall Road. It was quiet in town, but rammed there. I think there is something valid about the need for equality of access and parking, but that’s something that businesses have been talking about for years.
"Covid has not helped, because people don’t want to get on buses.
"As a small retailer you can compete because your overheads are lower. You’ve got to be flexible and nimble, realise what your customer base is, and have a relationship with them. Lorna knows everyone who comes in here by name.”
Richard and Michelle Smith run The Shoe Room, on Priory Walks, selling luxury brand shoes.
Richard feels they have done well in terms of turnover, despite the pandemic, through serving people via social media, allowing people to buy through that stream.
But he says Doncaster needs the same as every other town – people to buy locally rather than online.
He said: “We need people to buy locally first, and if they can’t get locally, then buy online. We’ve got followers all over the country, but I tell people to support their local high street first, and if they can’t get the services locally, we’ll talk to them on video calls.”
Richard is disappointed that Doncaster looks set to lose its Debenhams – but thinks he knows why people have turned away from them.
"I think Debenhams is a great shop. But last Christmas I was there looking for a dinner service. They only had one of the type I wanted displayed, but I needed two. It took me 10 minutes to find a staff member, and then I asked them if they had any more. She said ‘no, you should be able to get one online’. I’m sick of hearing people saying that, from people working in shops. I didn’t want to buy online, I wanted to buy from a store. I don’t want to be told to buy online.
"Shops that are successful are shops that give good service.”
Coun Bill Mordue, Cabinet Member for Business, Skills and Economic Development, is appealing for people to shop locally, and wants the Government to change business rates, to level the playing field for town centres.
He says Doncaster town centre has more than double the retail space of some similar size towns, and in future may focus its retail on to a few streets, encouraging further leisure, hospitality and town centre living.
There are currently regeneration projects including a new train station forecourt; Danum Gallery, Library and Museum; and the Savoy Cinema and leisure complex.
Doncaster Chamber chief executive Dan Fell added: “Times remain extremely tough for retailers and, consequently, town centres across the UK and Doncaster is no different. In the here and now I would urge local residents to shop local in the run up to Christmas if they possibly can and to demonstrate to our businesses and independents just how valued they are.”