ONE YEAR ON: Wigan's high street could look very different after Covid-19
The bosses of Wigan's two biggest town centre retail hubs have spoken of the impact of a year like no other for shopping.
Covid-19 has seen the borough, like the rest of the country, switch backwards and forwards between only essential stores being open and a wider range of shops welcoming customers through the doors.
It has been a year of colossal upheaval in a sector which was already experiencing massive changes.
John Sanson and Simon Tucker, centre managers at the Grand Arcade and The Galleries respectively, spoke of the ups and downs of the past 12 months of lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions and the impact it has had on Wigan town centre.
Mr Sanson said: “It has been a staccato 12 months, you could say. We locked down in March, came back in June, locked down again later on for November, opened in December and locked down at the end of that month.
“We’ve been closed down ever since, although we have six essential tenants including a bank, a post office, a pharmacy and things like that.
“It has been a difficult year, especially when we’ve got a number of staff, not just our tenants, who have been on furlough. And of course we’ve lost some people too, like Topshop and Topman.
“Going forward obviously Debenhams is reopening but in the longer term they are going to go. It has not been an easy 12 months.
“In this third lockdown we have had staff who have lost family members through Covid and that has been difficult to deal with. I’ve been to funerals where we’ve had to stand outside. That’s not how we should celebrate someone’s life, in my opinion.”
Mr Tucker said: “The last year has been unprecedented which is a word many have used to describe the impact of the pandemic.
“Clearly retail has been hugely affected; if someone had told me at the start of 2020 that shops would be closed for more than half of the year I would have thought they were insane.
“A year on and of course we all know the real situation and the terrible price many have paid.”
Mr Sanson suggested a degree of lockdown fatigue has set in recently, with more people around on the streets of the town centre despite the rules saying residents should stay at home unless their situation is exempt.
He said it is important for people to realise that Covid-19 has not gone away and there could be restrictions in the Grand Arcade which they will have to abide by for some time to come.
He said: “People might think this has all finished but we are still going to have to limit numbers coming in and individual retailers will still have numbers they can have in.
“That’s a really important message we need to get across. I don’t want people thinking everything is back to normal on April 12 because we will still have social distancing and you will still have to wear a mask. We’re not out of it yet.”
Despite that Mr Sanson is hoping there will be an appetite to come back and shop once restrictions are eased and says he thinks the Grand Arcade will be in for a very busy 12 months.
Mr Tucker also suggested The Galleries may be in line for a strong 2021 due to the changes Covid-19 has wrought.
He said: “The rise of localism and towns is something I think Wigan will benefit from, with the allure of large cities fading.
“There certainly seems to be a greater sense of community with people wanting to shop local and support their local traders.
“Whilst the retail sector continues to evolve, we have seen the survival of many independents whilst some well known, household chains have sadly collapsed.
“We’re proud to showcase some fantastic independents at The Galleries and Makinson Arcade, the latter of which has a rich history of independent retailers.”
Mr Sanson also said the coronavirus has accelerated trends which were already under way, especially in terms of rethinking what town centres are for.
He said: “We’ve actually encouraged people to go and shop online. That has accelerated the changes that were always going to come our way but a lot of retail hasn’t had time to react.
“People’s shopping habits are changing and we’ve got to look at what’s going to happen after this lockdown.
“There’s too much retail in every town centre. Debenhams is going and a planning application is in to turn the Debenhams in Leicester into flats. We’ve got to look at town centres changing.
“People want to live in town centres where they didn’t want to before, and that’s one of the benefits of The Galleries development. It should generate finance because people will still want to buy a newspaper, a card or cigarettes in the morning.”
Things may be changing, but retail remains a major source of jobs in Wigan and Mr Tucker said it was vital that people continue to support their local businesses to prevent further unemployment problems.
He said: “All said and done, it has been a difficult year for retail and the industry remains important to the local economy.
“Along with the council and other retailers in the area, we are asking the community to step up and show their support by using their local shops where they can, as we slowly emerge from a year of lockdowns.”
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