When business owners Ceri and Ellie Steed gaze out from the windows of their premises in the heart of Cardiff, they are confronted with a rather bleak view.
A long row of empty shops across the street stares blankly back at them. Many of them were cleared out months ago, their windows now painted over and boarded up.
The mother-daughter duo, who own Exitus Escape Rooms on Queen Street, were forced to say a temporary goodbye to their workplace when lockdown was announced in March 2020. But they didn’t realise that over the next year they would also bid a permanent farewell to several of their fellow traders.
This included Canadian retailer Second Cup Coffee Shop, which the pair say suddenly closed its doors in the first lockdown. Within a month, Carphone Warehouse three doors down had also closed, after the company’s decision to close all its standalone stores. Next door, Fusion Students, a sales room for student houses, also shut shop. And they say that Mobile Hub, a phone repair centre which opened in the midst of the pandemic, merely “came and went”.
The once bustling Parc Lane Traditional Fish and Chips nearby also didn’t survive lockdown – a closure which Ceri and Ellie say was completely unexpected.
For Ellie, 22, the empty shops nearby have been “horrible to see”. The duo attribute the survival of their business despite a long hiatus in trading to their “very understanding landlords” and strong community.
But not all shop owners have been so lucky. Ceri, 45, also points out that while Scotland and England both received restart grants in April this year, at the time Welsh hospitality was not afforded the same. After appeals for support, First Minister Mark Drakeford announced this week a package to help businesses return to trading.
Though Queen Street has certainly seen some of the most conspicuous closures – like its major Topshop store – it is not the only street in the city centre that can feel a bit like a ghost town.
The husks of former shops also haunt the Capitol Centre, the St David’s Centre, the Hayes, the arcades, Castle Street, St Mary Street and the High Street. Well-known chains such Cath Kidston, Office, The Edinburgh Wooden Mill and Michael Kors have been forced to close.
Jane Lenny, an employee of American fast food chain store Taco Bell on St Mary Street, says restaurants in that area which only do plate service have had it particularly tough over the last year.
She said: “Even though Taco Bell only opened in February last year and had to shut for so many weeks when Covid came in March, we still managed to stay afloat. When we re-opened, it wasn’t difficult for us to do takeaway. But our neighbours which only do plate service said they have lost quite a bit of money and had to close completely.”
Further down the road on High Street, the owner of Great Welsh Gifts, Taiyab Mohammed, used to have another gift shop on Castle Street. But because of the decline in tourism, it too fell victim to the repeated lockdowns. It was only his quick thinking to change the nature of the store entirely that stopped his business from passing into oblivion.
“Because gift shops mostly rely on tourists, I had to think of a different idea once circumstances changed,” he says.
“We were open a few times, but because of the restrictions we weren’t making any money. We couldn’t carry on like that, paying rent and other expenses like overheads. So I decided to change the gift shop into a convenience store, which is more appealing to local people. We have staff in there and I myself work there as well. We’re already doing really well and get lots of customers. It’s saved our business basically, I would say.”
Though he managed to keep his shop anchored in its place amidst the changing tides of the pandemic, he recalls that even well-established businesses around him got swept away: “Next to us on Castle Street used to be a Nisa Local convenience store. They closed down this year.
“That was a big one, because they had been trading for about 15 years and were a big chain. They just closed down.”
The Nisa Local has since been replaced with The Castle Emporium, a hub of independent retailers. As for Taiyab’s current gift shop on High Street that is still standing, he remains hopeful for its future – especially now that indoor hospitality is opening on Monday.
He says: “In this shop it’s quiet and we’re not making anything. But we’re hoping to bounce back and we’re optimistic about that. We’re starting to pick up again.”
Another independent business owner in Cardiff, who did not want to be named, also watched as businesses – particularly independent shops, some of them only having opened up in the first quarter of last year – started to fall through. He said: “Some of the landlords exploited the pandemic as a reason to move people out who they didn’t want in there. Some small businesses moved from the high street into different areas for better deals. I think here are quite a few people who did that – they negotiated better deals than those which their previous landlords could give them. Personally, our landlords didn’t give us any relief at all.”
He says the shops in the arcades were already struggling, so this year of lockdowns hit them especially hard: “It’s difficult in the arcades anyway. Rates and rents were going up all the time. Like I said, some of them went and negotiated new deals.”
He cited as an example a beauty salon which moved from the High Street Arcade to Windsor Place after negotiating a better price. But he added in comparison that Simply V, a vegan store in Castle Arcade, didn’t get the same fresh start: “Simply V has been in the arcade for a couple of years. They couldn’t handle the non-trading in the pandemic so they’ve gone, which is really sad.”
Sign up to the CardiffOnline newsletter to receive our top stories straight to your inbox.
It takes just seconds to sign up – simply click here, enter your email address and follow the instructions. You can also subscribe to tailored content for Swansea, Newport, rugby, Cardiff City FC, Swansea City FC and more.
Changed your mind? There’s an ‘unsubscribe’ button at the bottom of every newsletter we send out.
When asked what it’s been like to see so many shops close down, he says: “You didn’t know who was going to be next. Was it going to be us? We were all on a tightrope.
“No closures would have been a surprise. It’s so good a lot of them stuck it out and put their own money on the line. A lot of the small companies haven’t got that type of money. It’s just bad for the whole city centre. It hasn’t been an easy time anyway in the last five years with rental rates going up. The community died off and no-one saw each other. I think now we’re all starting to catch up with each other and rebuild that community feel.”
The independent business owner remains confident that the city centre will get back on its feet, believing that all trading has a knock-on effect.
Looking forward to the opening of indoor hospitality next week, he says: “Once people start spending money in bars and restaurants, they start spending money elsewhere. I certainly do think it will recover. We just need positivity.”
He is right to be hopeful. A weekly footfall report for Cardiff produced by Cardiff Council revealed that last week there were 552,563 visitors. In the week before that, which is when outdoor hospitality opened, there were 623,287 visitors
Though these are both a significant decline from the week commencing 3 May in 2019 (824,715), they are still miles ahead of the 80,254 visitors in the same week in 2020.
It is also promising that Queen Street led by a wide margin when it comes to footfall by location, with 232,920 last week alone (making up 42% of the total). The week before that it had 264,822 visitors.
Both figures are almost as high as the footfall in the week commencing 3 May two years ago (294,172). Unsurprisingly, last year it was visited by just 26,074 people
With indoor hospitality opening up on Monday, these figures are expected to increase significantly. Cornish Bakehouse, which has 19 shops across the country, has already begun to enjoy the advantages of the high traffic on Queen Street.
It moved there from Church Street in November, just as we came out of the second lockdown and into the third.
This may have been a risk at the time, but Philip Samuel, one of the directors of the company, says it ultimately paid off.
“When the lockdown was put in place in January this year, all our shops closed. We rely on other shops around us being open, as well as office workers, for our day to day trade,” he said.
“So with people working from home and so many other shops around us being closed, it was not worth our while staying open.
“As soon as lockdown restrictions started to be lifted, then we re-opened all our shops. We found that since 12 April, our Queen Street site has been performing far, far better than on Church Street in 2019. We’ve had double the footfall. That’s really encouraging.”
As for which other new shops are on the horizon to fill up the empty spaces, the BID For Cardiff says there is a lot of positivity in the city centre. Department store chain 15:17 will be moving into Topshop’s former premises. Shoppers can also look forward to some significant openings in the St David’s shopping centre, such as Breitling, a Tag Heuer showroom, Morphe, Get Caked Bakehouse, Shuropody, Simply Grace, a new family owned shop called Mallows Beauty, and finally Bo Concept.
For Cardiff says that the virtually abandoned Capitol Centre will have an ambitious revamp, such as new offices, though this has been in the pipeline for some time now and the centre has stood half-empty for years while people wait for the plans to move forward.
There is also interest in at least three the empty premises below the Jurys Inn on Queen Street, directly opposite Ceri and Ellie’s Exitus Escape Rooms. Hopefully this means they will get a more cheerful view from their own premises in the next few months.
-- to www.walesonline.co.uk