Save Our High Rd

It is becoming a depressingly familiar refrain. Each week it seems like we hear another business on Chiswick High Rd has closed. Last week there were two: George’s Diner and Jackson and Rye; one an independent seafood restaurant run by the chef, only opened ten months ago, the other part of a chain under the umbrella of Cote Brasserie, which owns more than a hundred restaurants nationally.

It’s hard to run a retail business successfully. If you look at the recent turnover in Devonshire Rd alone: Whisk, Classic Image Cafe, London Zu, Canta Napoli, Abode, Bagista, Cardamom, Quantus, The Parlour, Vape Emporium, that shows how difficult it must be. But the fact that stores like Fat Face, White Stuff and Oddbins and restaurant chains like Foxlow and Carluccio’s have also closed their branches in Chiswick and that even Jamie Oliver couldn’t make a go of it here, demonstrates that even the big companies with economies of scale and deep pockets struggle.

Some fail because they’re just not good businesses. When Bagista opened its doors in Devonshire Rd selling second hand, sorry ‘vintage’ or ‘pre-loved’ handbags, an old Chiswick retail hand muttered darkly that it would fail within a year because it was a ‘hobby’ business. It took slightly longer than that but sure enough when the owner got pregnant she decided she’d had enough.

Others fail because their location seems cursed. The site of George’s Diner, on the corner of Prebend Gardens and Chiswick High Road, was previously home to Nova and the 1820 bar, each of them equally short lived. Another doomed spot seems to be opposite Watchfield Court in Sutton Court Rd, where Shafran café recently opened, which has seen a high turnover of businesses and long periods of vacancy. Let’s hope the new occupant bucks the trend.

But there are forces at work here way beyond the capability of hard working shop keepers to tackle alone, no matter how determined and creative they are, how good their business plan and how many hours they put in.

The causes of high road blight are many and complex. One major change is the advent of internet shopping. Online sales of non-food items have soared over the past five years, from 11.6 % of the total market in December 2012 to 24.1 % in December 2017 (source, British Retail Consortium) with some products – notably clothing – now selling more online than they do in-store.

Another is the introduction of huge American style shopping malls, which have decimated town centres up and down the land. Diane Barden, owner of dress shop De Joli, faced by an increase in her rent of nearly 40%, was told by the agent acting for the owner of the property that no one wants high road dress shops these days; if they want clothes they go to Westfield. A brutal thing to say, but it has a certain ring of truth to it.

Westfield shopping centre, Shepherd’s Bush

People who have grown up with the internet and online shopping think nothing of ordering online; they get it the next day, they try it all on at home and then send most of it back, but what Diane offers is personal service. The only time I have bought a ‘wardrobe’ of clothes rather than the odd item was when I had to go on a work trip to the US for three weeks and look presentable every day. She picked out about 12 items which I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen, but which looked good, worked well together in any combination and which I wore to work for years after. Having been on the High Rd for nearly 30 years she is now having to look for someone to share the space with, to meet the cost of her hugely increased rent.

Chiswick High Rd – Photograph by Anna Kunst

High Rd ‘Task Force’

Three Chiswick councillors, Joanna Biddolph, Patrick Barr and Gabriella Giles, announced last week that they were setting up a task force to tackle the crisis facing independent shops: “to support our existing local shops, help address the decline in the number of independent shops in Chiswick and reduce the number of new shops that set up then fail.”

Good luck to them. This is a really important initiative which all of us would like to see succeed. The independent shops are part of the character of Chiswick which we all enjoy. But they will have their work cut out.

The campaign is about four things:
1. Influencing policy makers, nationally and locally, to ensure that policies support, rather than hinder, our independent retailers
2. Explaining to landlords and agents that huge leaps in rent drive out independents and are changing Chiswick’s shopping streets and character for ever
3. Guiding businesses looking to set up shop in Chiswick on how to make a success of it
4. Persuading residents and visitors to change their behaviour and put independent shopping on their shopping lists.

Item one is a mammoth task for three newly elected local councillors, but ultimately is the most important.

Item two is equally fraught. I have talked to quite a few traders who are angry and resentful about the huge hikes in rent and rates (which are linked and not, as many believe, within the gift of the local authority to de-link). Rent and rates bills, influenced by market forces, are the biggest single factor making businesses fail.

One long established businessman, who doesn’t want to be named because he is currently trying to sell his business, told me that he was fed up with the sheer greed of landlords and agents in Chiswick. I suspect they understand full well that huge leaps in rent drive out independents and they don’t care. In fact a period of vacancy just gives them the opportunity to increase the rent to the next tenant.

Devonshire Rd street party, not happening this year

Item three is something local traders can do something about. Mike Moran, owner of Top Hat dry cleaners in Devonshire Rd, has been in his family’s business his whole life and has seen various traders’ associations come and go. Trying to get Chiswick businesses to work together is a thankless task he says. He is not organising a street party in Devonshire Rd this year because of the lack of support from other businesses.

There have been several attempts at organising a Business Investment District to promote business in Chiswick, which have failed through lack of enthusiasm from traders, but just moaning about how hard things are isn’t terribly effective. New businesses open up and pay ridiculously high rent, says Mike, because they don’t bother to check how much other people are paying. Other areas have flourishing traders’ associations and at very least being able to share that kind of information may avoid some business failures.

Item four is precisely why The Chiswick Calendar started the Club Card scheme, to encourage people to support independent businesses by shopping locally rather than going in to town. “It’s so easy to dash to a supermarket to buy everything there without a thought” says Cllr Patrick Barr. The cliché “Use It or Lose It” could not be more apt.” “If every resident were to make small but permanent changes to their shopping behaviour, buying from independents, it could ensure our independent businesses survive” says Cllr Joanna Biddolph.


Top Hat, Devonshire Rd

The task force team has already had preliminary discussions with several business owners, business organisations and individuals who have offered expertise and skill. It is currently drawing up an action plan.

“This must be driven by our traders” says Cllr Joanna Biddolph. “A lot of advice and business support is geared to office-based businesses; it does not work for retailers. We want to use our positions of influence to change that and make a positive difference for Chiswick”.

To see where you can use your Club Card, see our new directory of Club Card businesses here, a convenient alphabetical list of participating businesses which you can see at a glance on your phone while out shopping.