Published: 06:00, 28 April 2021
| Updated: 14:34, 28 April 2021
More than 40 city centre businesses have closed down in the last 12 months as the retail and hospitality sectors were ravaged by the pandemic.
But with 25 new outlets having opened and streets once again bustling with shoppers, business leaders are optimistic the tide is now turning.
Crowds have flooded back into Canterbury since hairdressers, pubs, eateries and non-essential stores reopened on April 12 after months of closure.
But those returning to the city cannot fail to notice the scars of the pandemic it now bears.
Canterbury already featured a number of large vacant shop fronts prior to the coronavirus outbreak, such as those where Nasons, Debenhams, Curry’s and Poundworld once stood.
But the long periods of lockdown sadly proved fatal for many other businesses.
The city now has more disused premises than it has had since records began in 2012, with 13.4% now unoccupied - almost 3% more than last year.
Six units now stand empty in Whitefriars.
Among them is the large glass-fronted unit vacated by Topman and Topshop during the pandemic.
Monsoon and Accessorize have also left the shopping centre in the last 12 months, and their old premises sit vacant along with the former EE, Jessops, Ernest Jones, and Beaverbrooks stores.
But Whitefriars spokesman Julie Holness says there is positive news in the pipeline.
She revealed the unit opposite Fenwick that once housed jeweller Beaverbrooks is now under offer, as is the former Jessops premises in the Marlowe Arcade - although she was not able to confirm names of their prospective tenants.
“We also have plenty of interest on all our empty units,” she added.
Among the other biggest casualties of the last year were Dorothy Perkins and Burton, owned by retail empire Arcadia Group, which entered administration in November.
But the empty store on the corner of Rose Lane has just been marketed for rent.
Nick Furlong, director of commercial property consultancy BC Retail, says he believes the large premises may be split into multiple businesses.
“Considering we’ve seen one of the most difficult years the retail market’s had to endure for some time, I’m pleasantly surprised by the level of interest we’ve had so far,” he said.
But he added that modern retail requirements “don’t necessarily suit” the lay-out of the building, which comprises 11,000sq ft, across four floors.
“I think whoever owns it would perhaps have to look at splitting it to get the entirety of the property let,” he said.
Meanwhile, other retailers in the Whitefriars area have used the lockdown as time to refurbish their stores.
Boots and Fenwick have introduced new brands, while stores such as Copperfield menswear have undergone revamps, and eateries have adapted to offer alfresco seating.
Ms Holness added: “German Doner Kebab have taken the former Game unit at the clocktower and are currently fitting out.
“We also welcomed Canterbury Makers back to the centre, who have taken the former Kuoni unit in the Marlowe Arcade.
“I can also confirm Goldsmiths are soon to undertake a major refit and will be relocating to the former Ernest Jones unit whilst this is being done.”
Business leaders optimistic about bouncing back
Promise is in the air elsewhere in the city as new businesses open and retailers look forward to the further easing of lockdown restrictions.
Canterbury Business Improvement District (BID) says that while 42 businesses have closed their doors in the last year, some 25 have also opened, spelling fresh hope for Canterbury’s bruised retail sector.
Chief executive Lisa Carlson said: “Reflecting the rest of the country, Canterbury’s high street has lost some businesses during the pandemic.
“It’s always hard to lose businesses, but even prior to Covid, there was more turnover and change, and continued investment in Canterbury.
“With proposals on several of the larger sites we expect the vacancy rate to drop significantly over the coming months.”
Mrs Carlson remains optimistic about the future of the city centre, where footfall was down just 17% on the week shops reopened compared to the same period in 2019 - despite restrictions still being in place and many attractions yet to open.
“We were hugely excited that non-essential businesses started to reopen once again,” she said. “It has felt like a significant milestone.
“We are feeling positive and energised about the year ahead and confident that we can encourage visitors and residents alike to shop and dine in Canterbury, within a safe and welcoming environment.
“Just this month we have seen (Kent burger restaurant) Chuck and Blade, Vintage Superstore, Victoria Grace Bridal and (restaurant) No.35 opening their doors for customers.
“We are also very excited to see city centre hotel, Hampton by Hilton, opening at the end of May.”
With indoor hospitality, hotels, cinemas and museums set to reopen on May 17, Mrs Carlson hopes trade will only increase.
“We very much hope customers continue to show support to the businesses in Canterbury city centre,” she said. “We also look ahead to introducing new visitor experiences over the coming months.
“We have beautiful hotels and B&Bs, our well-loved festivals such as Pride Canterbury and the Medieval Pageant. Our music festivals are returning this year along with Kent Cricket season, the Sandwich Golf Open and even a big screen to watch Wimbledon in the city centre.”
Of Canterbury's 130 pubs, cafes and restaurants, 91 opened for outdoor dining or takeaway when lockdown restrictions eased earlier this month, while a further 19 are set to join them when dining restrictions are lifted.
The remaining 20 have not yet announced reopening dates.