‘We might be the only person they see all day’ - why the independent high street is key to this east Suffolk town
PUBLISHED: 07:30 07 February 2020 | UPDATED: 12:04 10 February 2020
The east Suffolk town of Leiston remains a hub of independent business; but what has allowed it to stay like this and what do retailers there see as the challenges facing them?
The town is home to at least 35 independent businesses ranging from cafes and takeaways to greengrocers, butchers and stationers.
Very few "branded" shops call the town home and recent attempts to change this have been met with anger from residents.
Rebecca Stephenson- Simply Delicious
Rebecca Stephenson runs Simply Delicious, a popular cafe on the high street which also provides eco refills and other environmentally friendly products.
"I've been in the shop six years and I had another shop for five years," said Mrs Stephenson.
"I am a 50-50 business; a cafe and a whole foods shop."
The business has benefitted from the growing environmental conscious among the general public that has been sparked by programmes like Blue Planet.
"It used to be niche but it is increasing in interest," said Mrs Stephenson.
Mrs Stephenson believes there's a real environmental benefit to shopping local.
"You buy what you want and there's less waste," said Mrs Stephenson.
As well as an environmental benefit to customers there's also a social benefit which Mrs Stephenson sees as key on high streets like Leiston's.
"I think people are keen to still shop on the high street," said Mrs Stephenson.
"It gives you a point of contact and you can meet people."
"It's making it friendly and welcoming. It's the thing you cannot buy: a personal service."
It's this personal touch that Mrs Stephenson sees as lacking in some towns.
"When you go to big places you see the same businesses," said Mrs Stephenson.
"You could be anywhere in the country and they are only interested in profits."
Peter Drew - Nichols Family Butchers
Another business which places an emphasis on personal service is one of the more traditional offerings in the town; Nichols Family Butchers.
Not all market towns can boast such a business these days but Leiston has had one in the same location since 1895.
"We have got a good customer base, they come in from the villages and the surrounding area as well," said Peter Drew, an employee at the butchers.
It's the time and effort that the business is able to spend with customers that helps them to stand out from their supermarket competitors.
"We try and give a personal service," said Mr Drew.
"That's what we can do. We can create what is wanted."
Living in the town himself Mr Drew feels that the town's other attractions also add to the appeal for visitors and importantly potential customers.
"The night life is robust," said Mr Drew.
"We have got good locals. It's a sociable place to meet.
"We have got three good football teams, there is also a cinema in the town and we have a swimming pool.
"We have a lot to offer people."
A concern that rests in Mr Drew's mind is the fate of the town's only remaining bank, Barclays.
"I am worried about what is happening to Barclays," said Mr Drew.
With the bank having closed other branches in places like Aldeburgh, many locally are concerned that Leiston could be next.
Barclays has always said that it is committed to remaining in the town, but that hasn't eased everyone's fears.
Colin Stewart - Titlow's Newsagents
Another long-standing business is Titlow's Newsagents, which has been a staple of Leiston's high street since 1869.
After all this time, the shop has come to depend on the loyalty of the townspeople.
"We have regular customers, we depend on them," said Colin Stewart from the shop.
"It would not work with just passing trade."
However, this loyalty extends beyond a customers regularly buying a pint of milk and a loaf of bread.
"We perform a social service," said Mr Stewart.
"People come in to here to talk and to moan. We might be the only person they see all day.
"That keeps us going. They don't get that in the bigger stores."
Aside from their loyal customers, Mr Stewart said the business benefitted from not paying business rates because of its size.
"If we did have to pay it, that would be a problem," said Mr Stewart.
With 150 years behind the business, what does Mr Stewart believe would help traders in the town going forward?
Talk of the proposed plans for the Sizewell C nuclear power station is controversial in Leiston but traders do think of the potential financial benefits.
"From a commercial aspect it can benefit the town by increasing the population," said Mr Stewart.
A bigger population, even for just 10 years while the station is being built, could help local businesses to survive said Mr Stewart through additional custom.
"That or a supermarket in the town centre," said Mr Stewart.
Debates over a new supermarket for Leiston have been long running.
"When Tesco's wanted to come into the town there was a campaign to keep them out," said Mr Stewart.
When plans were turned down for Leiston, Tesco's ended up building a store in Saxmundham, meaning some residents now head out of town to do their weekly shop.
Chris Newson - Framing Shop and Art Gallery
Chris Newson has been running a framing shop and art gallery in his current premises for just over a year.
"All the businesses in Leiston support each other," said Mr Newson.
"I had a lovely opening party when I opened. We could just do with more people."
It's not just support from within the trading community that has helped Mr Newson but also from elsewhere in the town.
"I have been supported by Leiston Town Council," said Mr Newson.
"Without their support, I wouldn't have been able to able to continue."
High rent is often a reason given by businesses for their closure; lower rent available for shops like Mr Newson's have also helped to sustain his business.
"It's probably the main reason I am here," said Mr Newson.
"In my view, I don't think I would be able to do this in Saxmundham or Aldeburgh."
Helen Barker- Sandlings
Helen Barker runs Sandlings; a shop selling homeware, painted furniture and other giftware.
"I have been here almost five years but it's hard work," said Ms Barker.
Ms Barker's business is helped by the fact that she is the only business in the town to sell particular types of paint, indeed some of these are used by Mr Newson to paint the frames in his shop.
"It's a nice, friendly community. Everyone knows everyone and we have traditional businesses," said Ms Barker.
Despite the town's older businesses managing to remain on the high street, it's a very modern problem which concerns Ms Barker.
Parking changes at nearby shops have complicated matters for traders with time restrictions now in place in some parts of the town.
"It was a massive problem and some people boycotted," said Ms Barker.
Without anywhere to park retailers like Ms Barker remain concerned that customers may turn to other shopping areas.
"People go to Ipswich and Martlesham. They go to big shops," said Ms Barker.
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