‘Our big retail stores don’t have a future anymore’, warns Suffolk property expert

Last day of trading at BHS in Ipswich in 2016

Last day of trading at BHS in Ipswich in 2016 - Credit: Archant

A property consultant has spoken out about the challenge of finding tenants willing to move into Suffolk’s rising number of empty retail premises.

Mark Sargeantson (Fenn Wright). Picture: Alison Hamilton (Birketts)

Mark Sargeantson (Fenn Wright). Picture: Alison Hamilton (Birketts) - Credit: Archant

Mark Sargeantson, a consultant from Fenn Wright, was speaking at a property seminar held recently by Birketts Solicitors in Ipswich, which brought together a group of experts to discuss trends in the local property market.

“Retailers are having a massively challenging time at the moment, and big units are the most vulnerable,” said Mr Sargeantson.

But while there is an impact on bricks and mortar retailers from online shopping, Mr Sargeantson says that in Suffolk’s market towns - Framlingham, Woodbridge and Beccles, for example - “the small size of the shops, their independent character and the level of service they provide is sustainable, as long as they are offering something special to consumers.”

“The places that are being impacted the hardest are larger towns and cities where there are big stores - Ipswich for example,” he added.

Debenhams, Ipswich. Picture: LUCY TAYLOR

Debenhams, Ipswich. Picture: LUCY TAYLOR - Credit: Archant

Mr Sargeantson points to the former BHS store in Ipswich Butter Market as an example of the challenges retailers are facing in the town.

Despite plans to turn the site into smaller food and retail units, which were supported by Ipswich Borough Council, the premises has remained empty since BHS closed down in July 2016.

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“It still hasn’t been re-let, and it’s the same issue now with former House of Fraser in other parts of the country,” said Mr Sargeantson. “A rising number of shopping centres around the country are falling into disuse because there are no takers for that sort of space anymore.”

Debenhams has recently announced that it is exiting 50 stores in the next three to five years, and Mr Sargeantson warns that if Debenhams in Ipswich becomes vacant, or contracts in size, “it raises a big question of what will happen to that upper floor space.”

“Those big stores with large areas of store space just don’t have a future as retail stores.”

Mr Sargeantson says that the owners of these types of buildings are now having to reconsider their options, and many are choosing to separate the ground floor units. “But the upper floor space is the most difficult issue,” he added. “Some are now looking to residential conversion, or turning those upper spaces into gyms, beauty salons and cinemas - uses that are anything other than retail trade.

“You can’t replace online sales - its a really big challenge.”

But its not just retail space that is not always easy to fill in Ipswich.

Saxon House, in the centre of ipswich, is a 14,000 sq ft office building. “All of the potential buyers wanted to convert it to residential use,” Mr Sargeantson explained. “That is a significant change in the market - some buildings are no longer needed for office use.”

A change of use was also recently found for a 7,000 sq ft industrial warehouse that is part of Ransomes Europark on Bermuda Road - to an indoor climbing and bouldering centre. Avid Indoor Climbing opened at the end of September, and another indoor climbing centre is scheduled to be open at The Havens in Ipswich, operated by Clip’N’Climb.

“Climbing is going to be a new event in the 2020 olympics, its becoming very popular now,” said Mr Sargeantson.