Retail sales: Early-2024 troublesome for some Kingston businesses but optimism remains

Kingston businesses remain optimistic for the rest of 2024 despite the early months bringing issues such as high utility bills and a reduction in consumer spending.

Office of National Statistics’ Retail Sales Index showed sales volumes declined by just over 2% in April 2024, but some businesses believe the warmer weather, new events, and maintaining high standards will lead to a better second half of the year.

Andrew Beagley, managing director of Natterjacks said: “January, February and March are always very tough months because Christmas sucks so much wind out of the sails. When you get to [this time of year] people have spent up and are paying for what they spent over Christmas.”

Business owners, such as Beagley, and politicians believe the negative growth shown in the Retail Sales Index, was partly due to the bad weather in the month of April. Leaving many hopeful that a better spell of weather will benefit Kingston and beyond.

First opened in 1989, Natterjacks is an independent clothing retailer based in Fife Street and operates online. Yet, the continued expansion of e-commerce brings further problems to smaller businesses.

Beagley said: “One of the other challenges is getting [younger] people to want to go shopping. (…) It’s just working out whether [they] are going to think: ‘I don’t need to go to the shops, I don’t need to waste my time and money going into a town centre. I’ll just buy it online and send it back if I don’t like it.’

“But I think there always should be something good about going to a store. Going to a town centre, experiencing life and seeing human beings and interacting with [them].”

Rising bills have also caused problems for businesses, as Ali Parcell, a co-owner of The Fighting Cocks pub said: “The utilities situation has been really challenging. (…) our electricity bill got to a point where it was [around] four times the size it had been previously, which is obviously an incredibly difficult situation to balance.”

Increasing costs have also affected other businesses in the area as Jon Tolley, owner of Banquet Records, explained at the turn of the year: “We need to pay our staff more because all their costs are going up. Meanwhile all our costs are going up [as well].

“How do we get that money without charging more money to the customer? Are [the customers] going to say at some point: ‘no I can’t justify spending £40 on the record where maybe three years ago it’d be £2’. It’s quite a jump.”

Banquet Records offers customers both physical media with its store on Eden Street, as well as live shows held at numerous venues in the area.

At the beginning of the year Tolley also noted: “People have less money in their pockets. They’ve got less money to spend on things that they don’t necessarily need. Records and gigs are, I guess, some things that people don’t necessarily need, so that’s a challenge.”

Published in April 2024, the results of a Deloitte survey showed that spending on leisure has declined 6% so far this year, which poses a challenge to businesses such as Banquet Records and The Fighting Cocks.

Parcell has run the pub and venue with her husband since September 2021, as well as The Old London Road Café, with both businesses situated on the café’s namesake. The Fighting Cocks is also a live venue and hosts musical artists and stand-up comedians.

Parcell said: “We’re not selling the [amount of] tickets in advance that we would have done previously for gigs. There are definitely things that we put on that we would have expected to be a sellout, that actually only hit 60% capacity, or something like that, which is difficult.”

Despite these issues, many believe Kingston is still an optimum place for retail, and this can further be seen with the area moving from 15th to 5th in the latest Newmark Vitality Rankings.

The rankings, created by the Newmark Group, who offer advice occupiers of commercial sites, use metrics such as market size, quality of retail on offer and vacancy rates, to rank retail centres in the UK, with the current number one being Cambridge City Centre.

Beagley said: “If you compare Kingston to many other areas in the south of England, Kingston’s right up there. In my opinion it isn’t as attractive as a place as it used to be, but that’s maybe to do with age and with money not being reinvested in the town to give it a polish.”

Parcell provided a similar sentiment but said areas such as Old London Road are overshadowed by other aspects of Kingston.

“It probably does struggle a little bit with the footfall, which is a real shame because there’s some fantastic businesses around there. It’s definitely a challenge for us to tempt people away a little and show them what Old London Road has to offer, because it’s plenty.”

Parcel mentions filling vacant retail sites, such as the former site of Wilko, would further benefit the retail area.

Despite the issues facing small businesses nationwide, there are reasons for optimism going into the summer. Consumer confidence in the economy has increased to almost pre-pandemic levels, and early indicators suggest retail sales in the United Kingdom increased in May.

Natterjacks’ Beagley is optimistic that the turn in whether will lead to an uptick in clothing sales whilst The Fighting Cocks’ Parcel is looking forward to offering a wide variety of gigs and events to the town later this year, as well as reintroducing street events at a later date.

Regarding Banquet Records, Tolley said: “We are putting on loads of events. We’re selling records for as cheap and as well as we can. So it’s not broken, we don’t need to fix anything apart from just keeping it going and making sure that we’ve still got a financially sound business to be having this conversation in a year’s time.”

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