Retail expert drafted in to help Durham city centre shops battle back from coronavirus crisis

Leaders of a project to help a city’s businesses fightback from the economic crisis have pledged they will not be done until every shop is filled and it holds the crown as “independent retail capital of the UK.”

By Fiona Thompson
Saturday, 16th May 2020, 7:00 am

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The City of Durham Parish Council has brought in North East retail consultant Graham Soult to support businesses through the difficulties of COVID-19 and to give its ventures a boost.

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Described as the “North East’s Mary Portas” Mr Soult is a High Streets Task Force Expert, blogger and the vice-chairman of Durham Business Club, while he has previously helped improve the fortunes of Chester-le-Street’s Front Street.

Graham Soult will work with City of Durham Parish Council on plans to help businesses thrive during and after the coronavirus crisis.

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In conjunction with the council, businesses will be helped to improve their online presence and operations to help them survive during the lockdown, while independent retailers will be championed and work done to fill empty units.

Firms including Marks and Spencer, Topshop and Pret a Manger have already left the city centre, with a number of other units vacant.

He will head up a social media campaign @IndieDurhamCity aimed at increasing visitor numbers once restrictions are lifted.

Council chairman Councillor Elizabeth Scott said the first task was to help during and after the lockdown.

Durham's Silver Street, where Topshop has traded and will not reopen after the lockdown, has been silent due to the restrictions.

She added: “More widely, we want to give the city a real boost post-pandemic with a huge social media campaign promoting Durham as a place to visit and shop with your family, with the aim of achieving greater footfall, empty units filled, and a more diverse offer for consumers.

“Our work will not be finished until Durham becomes the all-units-filled, independent retail capital of the UK.”

Mr Soult said: “My immediate task is to ensure that businesses are well-equipped to survive the pressures of COVID-19.

“But thinking past this, how the city centre recovers post-pandemic will be crucial.

“As chain stores leave town centres, a growing pool of independent shops and other businesses is needed to reinvigorate and sustain those places – not just in terms of filling empty units, but also in ensuring that there is a distinctive, quality, local offer, giving consumers a fantastic experience.”

Mr Soult's work starts later this month and his services are available free to businesses based in the parish area.

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