The city bucking the trend for online Christmas shopping

Moroccan market in Briggate, Leeds
Moroccan market in Briggate, Leeds
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If Britons are set to buy more Christmas gifts and groceries online than on the high street, why has Leeds seen a surge in shoppers? Rod McPhee reports.

The figures seem contradictory, to say the least. Experts predict that 54 per cent of our 2012 seasonal spend will take place via the internet – and yet in Leeds there’s been a rise in footfall.

On Briggate, the busiest Leeds shopping street, cameras tracked 1.9m people on the thoroughfare from late October to mid-December 2009. In the same period this year that number rose to 2.04m.

Across the country, however, the online Christmas spend has risen by four per cent since 2011 – so shouldn’t more shoppers currently perusing Leeds shops be ordering their presents and foodstuffs from a laptop? Not exactly.

Fortunately, Leeds has attracted big retailers at the forefront of complementary internet shopping. The likes of Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, (part of the web-savvy John Lewis group), have invested hugely in the “click and collect” mode of shopping, whereby customers order online but pick up products in-store. It’s fast, free of charge and, crucially, still gets customers through the doors.

Meanwhile Arcadia are focusing on creating huge “experience” stores, which pull in shoppers and offer an online service. Their new flagship Topshop/Topman branch in the Trinity Leeds scheme is a prime example.

David Laycock is head of the Leeds Retail Association and a director of Trinity Leeds. He says: “Topshop/Topman is typical of the kind of theatre which shops have to provide these days. Stores can’t afford to be predictable and they can’t afford to be limited in terms of stock and availability. Gone are the days when you got the standard response, ‘If it isn’t out, we don’t have it’. That just isn’t good enough any more.

“Now, if someone wants something in a different size or colour and it isn’t in store, they want to know that they can go to a terminal and order it for collection within a few days. And if shops don’t do that, then they will always lose out to the internet and, probably, another retailer that does provide the service.”

But good service isn’t always more important than good value for money. With internet giants like Amazon and Asos offering huge discounts, high street retailers have responded by launching massive autumn/winter sales.

“Shops now double up as showrooms too,” says Laycock. “People go inside to get an idea of what they want but use the internet to order exactly the right size, but, similarly, people may spot something online but want to go into a shop to feel what the fabric’s like 
or see what it’s like on them and they might buy it there and 

“The point is that unless you have that multi-channel retailing going on then you only offer customers an either/or choice.”

The presence of net-friendly retailers may help explain why, in December, most UK high streets see a footfall rise of between six and ten per cent. In Leeds it soars by over 24 per cent. The city has also maintained its position at number seven in the retail rankings of UK cities, with around £1.5bn passing through the city’s cash registers between 2010 and 2011. Currently, there are no spending figures available specifically for this Christmas period.

Leeds City Council has also helped by staging the German market, the Moroccan market, the farmers’ market and international foodstalls in the city centre.

“It all goes back to creating the experience of shopping,” says John Ebo, deputy city centre manager. “And it’s about a different experience to online shopping, one where there are different products on offer and you have the chance to actually interact with people – markets are great for that.

“We’ve gone to a lot of effort to bring these things to Leeds, and they have worked. They’ve provided something which is not only different to the online experience but also different to the experience of lots of other towns and cities.”

Like the many arcades, the Corn Exchange and Victoria Quarter, destinations such as Kirkgate Markets offer a distinctly Leeds experience which contributes hugely to footfall. This week the computerised door counters at the markets are expected to record around 200,000 venturing inside. Year on year, visitor numbers have actually increased by about one per cent and, on Saturday, their busiest Christmas shopping day yet, 44,000 people visited.

“I think people in Leeds seem to forget how uniquely placed Leeds market is and how much of a massive draw it is,” says markets manager Sue Burgess. “We’re the biggest covered market in Europe. As visitor numbers show, it’s still a hugely popular draw for Leeds, particularly in the run up to Christmas – and it’s an experience which internet shopping just can’t compete with.”