Chelmsford in Essex is a good spot to assess the state of the British economy.
Just thirty miles from London, this bustling city of 100,000 or so is probably more prosperous than much of the UK. But that doesn’t mean plenty of consumers – and businesses – aren’t struggling.
Chelmsford has a much-loved daily market – in existence since the eleventh century, where local families often hold stalls for generations. But the message from traders is that shoppers are increasingly buying online and using the High Street less.
Handleys Haberdashery, selling fabrics, wool, sewing and knitting accessories and much more, has been a much-loved part of Chelmsford market for nearly sixty years. Current owner Christopher Handley, son of the founders, says the cost-of-living crisis has hit sales.
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“I think the average person – certainly the working class and low middle class that do a lot of shopping in the market – are finding it very difficult,” he says.
“They’re finding it expensive to heat their homes, to buy the food they need, to cope with the multiple rises we’ve seen in interest rates.
“People got less money to spend on the High Street and in the market itself.”
Handleys has lost trade to online suppliers for years. And since lockdown, there are fewer workers in local offices, which means fewer shoppers.
Current owner Christopher Handley, son of the founders, says the cost-of-living crisis has hit sales
Christopher says that retailers need help when Chancellor Jeremy Hunt unveils his Autumn Statement tomorrow.
“Unless they want to lose High Streets, and markets like this one which have been here for hundreds of years, something needs to change,” he says.
“Rents and business rates are often extremely high for retailers – they both need to come down, to realistic reflect what shopkeepers and market traders can afford to pay.”
Handley worries that the ongoing cost-of-living squeeze, and the challenge of online retailing, means his family business may not survive.
“I am worried – and there’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen.
“All I can really do is try and keep the legacy going of the business and order stock very carefully and do my job as well as I can.
“But there’s no God-given right for any stall in this market to survive – and, likewise, lots of bigger shops and bigger companies have fallen by the wayside.”
Chelmsford High Street
On the other side of Chelmsford market, Jeannie Cole has run “Previously Enjoyed” – her vintage gift stall for almost thirty years. Having served Chelmsford’s finest for so long, she highlights the human value of in-person retailing.
“My customers are loyal – they come back to shop with me time and time again,” she says.
“You end up getting to know them really well – and that’s valuable. If they go to big shops or buy online, they often don’t know what they’re buying – they need suggestions and direction, and that is all part of what buying nice things should be about.”
Cole agrees with fellow market trader Christopher Handley that the cost of retailing is becoming prohibitive.
On the other side of Chelmsford market, Jeannie Cole has run ‘Previously Enjoyed’ – her vintage gift stall for almost thirty years
“Everywhere you go, there are so many empty shops – it all becomes too expensive for a lot of the retailers,” she says.
“On top of that, car parks are too expensive, which discourages people from coming into town to go to the shops.”
Cole says that many older people also find parking apps very difficult to use.
“I know plenty of older people who have stopped coming into town because they find that parking apps are just too complicated,” she says.
“They want to pay for parking by putting money in a slot, not messing about with a complex smartphone that they might not have anyway.
“We have many elderly people living in and around Chelmsford and they find parking very hard.”
But despite parking difficulties, plus the threat of online shopping and economic downturn, Cole still thinks the magic of in-person shopping will somehow survive.
“We could lose our High Streets, but I don’t think we will,” she says.
“I just don’t think the British people would let that happen.”