I was actually there, in the middle of shopping for my mother’s birthday present.
I was after a particular product, a dusting powder (it’s a ladies’ thing) from a well-known perfume brand. The young assistant in the store was struggling to understand, so she called over her supervisor. “Oh, we don’t sell it,” said the older woman. “You’ll have to go on the internet for that.”
I said thank you politely and walked away to the card shop, where I overheard the staff chattering that the mall was to get new owners who were promising to stuff it to the rafters with decent shops and turn it into a mini-Meadowhall.
I’m going to be interested to see what happens. Whilst the adjoining new £130m Glass Works development, with shops, restaurants, a new market, multi-screen cinema, bowling alley, library and impressively landscaped outdoor space, has been hailed as a huge success for Barnsley, it’s been at the expense of the 30-year-old mall, to be frank.
Until that moment, I didn’t realise that the Alhambra Centre was facing uncertainty, but already I had the makings of a column in my head. It’s not the first time I’ve committed to going into town to shop local and ended up thwarted, sitting on a bench googling in frustration.
I understand that stores cannot stock every single item, and dusting powder is pretty niche. However, in 14 words the woman behind the counter summed up just about everything that is wrong with British retail right now and highlighted exactly why places like the Alhambra are struggling. She could have said: “When do you need it by? I can order it for you.” Or, even,
“Have you tried our branch at Meadowhall?” It was almost 5.30pm, when shops in the Alhambra Centre close, but the mega-mall, just 20 minutes away down the M1, stays open late.
I know Meadowhall has its fans – my teenage daughter and her friends included – but I try to practise what I preach and shop local as far as possible. How can I do this though, when I can’t get what I want and customer service is rubbish?
It is exhausting, working in a shop. I’ve done it. There are days when the last thing you want to do is smile and be helpful to customers, who are often difficult. That’s one of the reasons why I always try to be gracious, even when I’m secretly grinding my teeth in frustration.
Opened in August 1991, the Alhambra Centre, with 41 retail units, a café under an atrium and a 496-space car park, should still be a key player in the town’s economy. However, although anchor stores Wilko, Primark and Iceland remain, key tenants, such as Next and TK Maxx have decamped next door, leaving large empty shells. Receivers Avison Young have been appointed and are assuring the public (and presumably retailers and staff) that the centre is safe.
Andrew Foster, from Avison Young, said: “The appointment will have no operational impact on the tenants or shoppers, and the centre will continue to trade as normal… We will be exploring how we can enhance the centre in the medium term, including strengthening links with the neighbouring Glass Works scheme to continue the revitalisation of the town centre.
Ultimately, we will be looking to sell the property to a new owner with a view to making a lasting mark on the town and its surrounding communities.”
The challenge will be not only finding a new owner, but how to make that ‘lasting mark’. Some are saying it should be turned into apartments, or a massive food court – but just exactly what do you do with 182,000sq ft of town centre space in a pandemic? Towns like Barnsley, notwithstanding being ignored totally in the Government’s lamentable rail network plans for the North, have so much to offer, especially in a world reeling from the effects of coronavirus.
Although footfall in UK retail destinations has been 27.9 per cent higher this year than in 2020, according to retail specialist Springboard, it dropped at the end of October. Springboard suggests that this is partly because returning to offices has slowed as new cases of coronavirus increase.
Casting forward however, if we are to work from home more (where possible), travel less and appreciate what is on our doorstep, we need imaginative ideas that put people first, not empty units. And retailers who understand that they must go the extra mile to thrive. And in case you’re wondering, I returned to town the next day and went to Boots, where I found exactly what I was looking for. The assistant was helpful and pointed out a beauty offer which I’m dropping hints for at Christmas. There is hope, what we need now is faith.