Sutton residents say a department store will draw shoppers downtown, despite having the highest percentage of empty stores of the borough’s seven main streets. Sutton Council has big plans to improve the town center and in 2021 bought St Nicholas Shopping Center for £26m.
But a Freedom of Information (FOI) request found that in 2021, of the 385 downtown units, 63 or 16% were empty. The vacancy rate was down from 18% the previous year, which could be due to the impact of the pandemic.
Among empty buildings, shops had an 18% lower vacancy rate than leisure venues, which had a 12% rate. The latest numbers show the downtown is in worse shape than before the pandemic in 2019, when there was a 13% vacancy rate.
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The Local Democracy Information Service spoke to buyers on a sunny afternoon about what they think should be done to improve downtown Sutton. Kate Irwin, who was shopping with her son, said: “We are really local, but we don’t come very often. We buy online. It’s really, really sad to see everything closed, I used to spend my teenage years at Topshop with my friends.
Kate said she would like to see a big store in the city centre, adding: ‘It would probably encourage me to come back.’ While nine-year-old George said he would like to see ‘something sporty’ fill the empty shops in the town centre.
But friends Dee Reeves and Margaret Joyce, who are both retired, said they like to come downtown for a bit of shopping. Dee said: “I think Sutton has done really well, it’s nice to walk around the High Street.”
Margaret said she doesn’t like shopping online and prefers to come in person. She said: “It’s nice to go out and meet people. I don’t do anything online, nothing better than seeing something in person. The couple were unaware Sutton Council had bought St Nicholas Center and hoped it would mean a department store could return to the town.
Jason Adam, 36, who has worked at Gallery Gifts on the High Street for 10 years, thinks rent should be reduced to fill empty stores. He said: ‘A number of places in the center have closed but down the road some new ones have opened. I would like to see some of the empty stores reopen, but I hear the rents are really high. If they can somehow reduce that, it can make it buzz again.
While Giorgio Podesta, who ran clothing store The Projekt Store for 13 years, said business was good with more people working from home. He said, “I think [the council is] going the right way with the promise of various shops and places to eat, we just need more. We could do with cheaper rents and rates, which is key to attracting more business.
“Since we reopened after Covid we have been back to normal, if not busier, this is thanks to the young professionals moving to Sutton. We see young people who have moved from places like Shoreditch, Balham and Hackney, and we are more their kind of store. With working from home, we are busier at lunchtime. People are going out of the house to go to the shops rather than working in town and going to Carnaby Street.
Sutton Council’s plans for the St Nicholas Center have yet to be announced. On its purchase in August 2021, Head of Council Ruth Dombey said: “The purchase gives us the opportunity to secure the future vitality of our High Street. As a leaseholder, we will have much more control and influence over a key asset in our borough and we can ensure that any future development will be in line with our vision for downtown.