“It’s rubbish,” said Doreen Whitingham as she sat on a bench in Dudley Street, Wolverhampton’s main shopping drag. “This place used to be brilliant for shopping. We had British Home Stores over there. That’s gone. We had good little supermarkets and fruit and veg shops. All vanished. I’m sorry but it’s crap now.”
Another shopper, Judith Baba, is sad rather than angry. She likes her trips into the city centre but says there are big gaps on the high street. “Places like WHSmith aren’t here in the city centre any more, which is strange,” she says. “I don’t drive so have to rely on my daughter to take me to out-of-town places for some things. I think it’s a pity.”
A report by the accountancy firm PwC and The Local Data Company suggests the chains are quitting Wolverhampton. According to the report, Wolverhampton experienced a net decline of 13 stores in the first six months of 2019, making it one of the hardest-hit city or town centres across Britain.
The stores that have closed in that period range from Patisserie Valerie to the dessert emporium Icestone Gelato. A bike shop, nightclub, loan agency and calendar store also left town.
Dudley Street is by no means devoid of shops. There is a Marks & Spencer, the loss of which is often seen as the death knell to a shopping drag. There are busy fast food chains and fashion shops. But there are gaps.
The corner site that Starbucks used to occupy is vacant, while between the Thorntons chocolate shop and Next there are two empty units, one grimly shuttered. One used to be an EE phone shop; the other a Foot Locker. That BHS site is being redeveloped and due to be taken over by the discount household goods stores B&M and also a Wilko.
And there is worse to come. In October 2017 excited Wolverhampton shoppers queued for the opening of a new Debenhams store in the Mander Centre. In April it was named as one of 22 branches that would be closing. The city council called it a “shock.”.
And the future of the city’s flagship department store Beatties (established 1877) is also in doubt. It is one of the House of Fraser stores bought by Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct – a chain which he has said was facing “terminal” challenges. Many of Beatties’ shelves looked sparse and some areas were completely empty.
The University of Wolverhampton has proposed buying Beatties and turning it into student digs, space for business startups and art exhibitions and for what it calls “pop-up retail and leisure opportunities”.
Shopper Linda Woodall said the loss of Beatties would be a major blow. “For me, Beatties was Wolverhampton,” she said. “This place is becoming all cafes and charity shops.”
However, is still possible to find interesting, thriving shops in Wolverhampton, if you know where to look.
Places such as Oldies Unlimited, a specialist in rare records on Darlington Street. Simon Malpas, who runs the store with his father, Roger, said Wolverhampton used to have a reputation as a rough and ready sort of place. “But it’s on the up.”
It doesn’t surprise Malpas that some chains are leaving. “They can find cheaper rents and rates in the out-of-town places,” he said. “More could be done to help keep the shops here.”
Further down Darlington Street, Blooms Menswear was bustling. It has operated for 60 years and has 25 full-time staff members.
Blooms’ director, Tom Vant, who has worked there since 1981, said Wolverhampton’s high street faced a lot of competition, including a revitalised Birmingham a 20-minute train ride away, the out-of-town Merry Hill shopping centre 10 miles to the south and the internet.
Vant said Blooms had prospered because, unlike high street rivals, it offered a bespoke, personal service. “We pride ourselves on it. We are a destination store,” he said.
The revamped market at the bottom of Snow Hill was also thriving.
Housed in a bright collection of converted shipping containers, the market, which has been in existence since 1204, boasts no fewer than two fishmongers, at least half a dozen butchers, two Caribbean grocers, sari stalls and food takeaway stalls.
“People complain about the high street vanishing,” said Jim James, who was buying pasties from the baker’s stall. “It may just be that the high street’s shifted out from the town and city centres into places like this. I reckon it can still be found if you look hard enough.”
The Labour-controlled city council said Wolverhampton retailers faced the same challenges as in many other places across the country.
It said it was working hard to revitalise Wolverhampton through a range of developments and initiatives, ranging from a cinema, leisure and restaurant complex called Westside and a new state-of-the art railway station, due to open next year.
The city also attracted headlines in the summer when the online retailer eBay opened a popup shop to showcase local small businesses – the first of its kind.