'Support from the people of Sunderland has been amazing' - city centre businesses reflect on a year of lockdowns

It’s been a year of silent tills, drastically reduced footfall and the closure of household name chains in Sunderland city centre.

Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 8:40 am

While the loss of Sunderland branches of stores such as Debenhams and Topshop will be a huge miss in city centre trade, many retailers say there’s hope for the future of the high street as the country emerges from lockdown.

A year to the day since Boris Johnson announced the country was going into lockdown, on March 23, 2020, we’ve spoken to city centre businesses as they reflect on a year of uncertainty.

Gerard Purvis is the director of menswear store Port Independent in St Thomas Street which is looking forward to welcoming back its customers from April 12.

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City centre trade after a year in lockdown

Speaking about the past year, which has seen the store having to open and close a number of times in line with restrictions, he said: “It’s been a blessing and a curse. It’s been horrible not being able to serve our customers and having so much uncertainty.

"When we came out of the last lockdown, we all thought we had done our bit and that would be it, so to go back into lockdown was very demoralising. But the grants and loans have helped keep our heads above water and we had the time to expand with CoffeeHaus and Port Bierhaus (an in store beer shop).

"Coffeehaus (which is housed within the store) has been so busy as a result of lockdown as having a takeaway coffee is one of the only things left to do.”

Gerard says that with the vaccine roll out, the future is looking brighter and that a shift in consumer habits because of the pandemic has seen more people supporting small businesses.

Gerard Purvis, director at Port Independent

"We don’t know what the menswear retail landscape is going to look like moving forward. We’ve lost some big hitters in the city centre with Debenhams and Topman closing, so we don’t know what influence that will have,” he said. “But a good thing to come from all this is that we’ve seen an increase in people shopping smaller.

"People want to know where items have come from and if they are supporting local, they want to help the economy in the place they live, rather than a big multinational company. And while people will always shop online, there’s a lot to be said for the retail experience you can only get in a bricks and mortar store, rather than on an app.”

Laura Graham and husband Tommy took a leap of faith to open their first shop, The Sweet Petite cake shop in Mackie’s Corner, during the pandemic.

As a new business they weren’t eligible for the financial support given to more established businesses, but Laura says the support from their customers has made all the hard work worth it.

One year in lockdown at Park Lane.

"We’d always wanted our own shop, but never expected to be doing it in a pandemic,” she said. “There’s been a lot of sleepless nights as we weren’t eligible for funding and all the events we’d had lined up as mobile caterers were cancelled so we had no form of income.

"We put everything we had financially, physically and mentally into the business and hoped for the best.”

Since opening in December as an essential business, Laura says they’ve been overwhelmed by the support.

Port Independent in St Thomas Street

"We can’t believe it. The support from the people of Sunderland has been amazing,” she said. “The development of the building has transformed this side of the town and we are so lucky to have the support of our customers, as well as our neighbouring businesses. When we first looked at the shop you had to have a vision and belief of better times to come and you can see that happening, you can feel the change.”

Sweet Petite continues to trade as it has been, but from April 12 it will have a small number of tables outside and from May 17 a limited number of customers can sit inside. As a result of its success, the business will also be taking on more staff.

Laura said: “This has been the best thing we have ever done. People would think it’s crazy to open a new business in a pandemic and it was a risk but we believe in Sunderland and the people of Sunderland.”

While The Bridges essential retailers have continued to trade, the shopping centre say it’s looking forward to opening the shutters on its non-essential shops from April 12.

Centre director Karen Eve says despite the loss of two huge names on the high street, many tenants are committing to new leases and shoppers can look forward to refurbished stores in the coming months.

She said: “The last year has seen countless headlines around plunging profits, soaring vacancy rates and a spike in job losses. As the Bridges emerges from the cocoon of three lockdowns we are feeling hopeful about the future and thankful that Sunderland didn’t feel the brunt of such headlines as much as others in the country.”

CoffeeHaus, run by Ashley Bell, opened in Port Independent during the pandemic

She added: "It’s with a heavy heart we acknowledge the demise of Top Shop and Debenhams will follow soon, but what people don’t see are the hugely positive conversations we are having with tenants who are committing to new leases at Bridges and anchoring in their position for years to come. We are talking to new occupiers and have agreed to a number of tenants carrying out significant refurbishment and investment in their stores this year.

"When non-essential retail reopens in a few weeks, with the exception of Top Shop, customers can expect to see all the stores they enjoyed shopping lift their shutters and welcome them back.”

As well as shops reopening, people who haven’t visited the city centre recently can look forward to a host of new additions to its skyline, including the £11million auditorium set to open soon at the Fire Station and the multi-million pound development of Riverside Sunderland, a mix of residential, leisure and corporate, on the former Vaux site.

Sharon Appleby, head of business operations at Sunderland BID, says the future is bright.

“There’s no doubt the last year has been a very tough time for city centre businesses. While some sectors have continued to do well, others have been hit really hard,” she explained. “But what we have seen however is great innovation, with businesses changing their model to adapt to their new circumstances.

“We can’t really yet tell what the full impact of Covid-19 has been on businesses in the city centre, but we will be doing our bit to ensure that they get the help and support that’s available.

“We can however look towards a really bright future in the city, with some great opportunities on the horizon for businesses that want to grow or those who want to come into the centre for the first time.

“With developments such as the Riverside, the Culture House and the upgrade to the station, we really can start to be optimistic about moving forward.”

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Tommy and Laura Graham opened their Sweet Petite cake shop during the pandemic
Mackie's Corner has opened as a hub of independent businesses
The Bridges' non-essential shops will open from April 12
One year in lockdown at The Bridges, Crawtree Road.
One year in lockdown on High Street West.