Published: 00:01, 31 December 2017
Two new superstores are heading to an out-of-town retail park in Whitstable.
Pets at Home and Halfords are both set to join Aldi, M&S and Home Bargains on the Prospect Retail Park - a move which has upset town centre traders.
Independent high street shop owners have blamed the retail park for a slump in trade of as much as 40% and say the huge chain stores have dented income since they opened at the start of the year.
Brian Hitcham, President of Whitstable’s Chamber of Commerce (WCC), says many traders have suffered a 20% drop in sales, with others reporting double the misery at 40%.
“It is quite an alarming figure,” he said. “Lots of stores are hanging on by their fingernails.”
‘Shop local’ has become a popular maxim in the community since it was immortalised on the town’s railway bridge in 2013 by graffiti artist Catman.
But Prospect Retail Park’s competitive prices, convenience and free parking are luring customers away from smaller shops, says Mr Hitcham, who has lived in Whitstable for almost 60 years.
“The prices are really very low, which is tempting,” he said.
“It’s human nature. We accept the fact that there is a need for supermarkets, but when people started buying everything there, it becomes a problem for local traders.
“All we can do is promote the fact that Whitstable’s shopping area has lots of independent things you can’t buy anywhere else. We’re not just a copycat high street.”
The WCC has penned a detailed letter opposing the proposal for a new Halfords and Pets at Home, which each have two existing outlets within a 10-mile radius of Whitstable.
It claims an increase in shoppers could exacerbate current traffic problems in the area.
“It is not just retailers,” it says, “but also dog groomers and veterinary businesses that will be affected. There are proven economic benefits for the area if money is spent with independent businesses, rather than national chains.”
The letter acknowledges that new stores may create employment opportunities. But, it argues, this does not compensate for the jobs that will be lost if smaller shops are forced to close.
“Several businesses in the High Street have already had to lay off staff, and others will not be taking on their usual part time seasonal workers,” it adds.
Shops that would be directly affected by the proposed new stores include Herbert’s Cycles and Pets Pantry.
George’s Mini Market in Harbour Street is among many that have already suffered following the opening of the retail park.
“We have had a tough year,” said owner Lucy Eason, 30.
George’s has been well supported by the community since Lucy’s grandfather George Mist opened the shop in 1970. But after 37 years of trade, sales have started to slump.
“We’re only as good as the number of customers that come through the shop,” said the mum-of-two.
“We rely massively on our local customers. They’re so important to us. The new Home Bargains store has affected the High Street, though it’s difficult to measure how much.
"The failing of the Oyster Festival also had a massive effect on our business.”
Mr Hitcham also blamed changes to this year’s Oyster Festival for the problems facing independent retailers.
“It’s Canterbury City Council who have ruined the Oyster Festival, by limiting it to three days and relegating it to the Tankerton Slopes,” he said.
“They had a knee-jerk reaction to the problems we had last year, and threw the baby out with the bathwater, and local trade has suffered.”
Plans for the development are open for public consultation until Friday, January 19.
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