Indoor markets: the future of the region’s traditional trading arena
As Liverpool City Council continues its attempts to revive St Johns Market, Move Commercial examines the state of the region’s indoor markets and finds out whether there’s a viable future for this traditional trading arena.
Words by Lawrence Saunders
Picture a traditional British indoor market and images of butchers hoisting up huge cuts of meat whilst lively traders exchange banter with regulars will no doubt spring to mind.
But with footfall dropping and occupancy rates dwindling across many of the region’s markets, it’s a stereotype an increasing number of operators have been keen to move away from.
“Everyone has a vision of the old style indoor market where it’s about selling old stock, old tat and greasy spoon cafes, etc. – we wanted to get away from that,” says Mark Catherall, tourism, investment and employment service manager at Sefton Council, which looks after Southport Market.
A £3.3 million refurbishment of the 130-year-old Liverpool City Region market was completed in 2012, including a revamp of the market hall and a new emphasis on local food.
Essex-based management company Quarterbridge oversaw the refurbishment work and took over the running of the market but in 2015 Sefton Council decided to bring the operation back in-house after footfall and occupancy figures failed to rise as hoped.
“When we took back control of the market the atmosphere was quite toxic,” admits Catherall.
“The big focus is on food… But it has also been about how we sell the market as well. We’ve got rid of the old fashioned market.”
“The traders had become frustrated because they didn’t see anything new happening and footfall and occupancy was down.”
The council continued with the strategy of introducing a more food-focused offering but also pursued a new marketing plan in an attempt to change public perception of the retail space.
“The big focus is on food and we’ve been lucky because we’ve got a butchers, a high quality fruit and veg stall, plenty of cake stalls and a new gluten-free pop-up cafe.
“But it has also been about how we sell the market as well. We’ve got rid of the old fashioned marketing with people holding up pieces of meat or wool in a basket.
“If you look across the whole country that’s your typical marketing strategy, you’ll have traders smiling holding up their produce but in reality that’s not going to attract customers anymore when they can order online or visit a supermarket.”
Whilst the situation in Southport is improving with occupancy rates steadily increasing, the tale of another historic North West market sadly appears no closer to a positive conclusion.
In November 2016, Liverpool’s St Johns Market reopened after a £2.5m revamp which gave it a modern makeover and expanded its capacity from 90 to approximately 120 stalls.
However the changes were not well received with many long-standing traders complaining it had left the market with an insipid atmosphere and contributed to a fall in customer numbers.
In response to the complaints, a spokesman for Liverpool City Council told Move Commercial the local authority is “working with traders at St Johns on plans to improve footfall by attracting more people into the market” and revealed that the council’s ambition remains to “ensure St Johns is at the beating heart of the retail offer in Liverpool”.
It’s hoped the relocation of Liverpool’s main Job Centre Plus from Williamson Square to the upper floors of the market, where it will be based alongside the council’s One Stop Shop, will help towards this end.
Top of the council’s list of preferred new traders for St Johns are “food commodities”, suggesting the local authority harbours ambitions to follow the example set by Southport Market and another of the region’s most successful and celebrated indoor markets.
Winner of the Observer Food Monthly’s Best Market Award in 2015, Altrincham Market & Market House has become home to some of the region’s finest food and drink traders since a revamp saved the retail hub from seemingly terminal decline.
Closed in 2014 for refurbishment before reopening after just six months, the market was transformed with period features such as original wooden counters and plans to create a European-style food market.
The main hall building was fitted out with heaters and long wooden tables were installed to allow customers to enjoy their food in the market.
Jenny Thompson, part of the management team at Altrincham Market, admits that turning the facility into what it is today didn’t happen overnight.
“It took a long time to attract the quantity of quality traders we have working with us,” she says.
“We decided early on that we would rather have fewer traders but traders of a very good quality. That gave the public confidence to shop with us and in turn attracted more good traders.”
“Our market must offer better quality goods than can be bought in supermarkets and wherever possible the goods should be locally produced.”
According to Thompson, one of the reasons so many traditional markets are struggling is due to the saturation of low cost shops on the high street replacing one of the main functions markets used to fill.
“Low price goods are now available in so many high street stores and pound shops.
“We believe that our market must offer better quality goods than can be bought in supermarkets and wherever possible the goods should be locally produced and made, celebrating the North West region.”
Another of the region’s more famous markets which has continued to thrive in modern times is Bury Market which has seemingly done so without needing to move away from its established trader core but rather through clever targeting of customers.
Bosses invested in a coach drop-off situated right next to the market in an attempt to maximise the impact of coach visitors by catering for what market manager Andrew Heyes calls the “elderly and female make-up” of its customers.
“Of course shopping habits are changing and internet shopping and retail parks are making it an extremely tough environment for markets but you’ve just got to raise your game and do what you can,” he says.
“About 12 years ago we built up a coach database. We started targeting coach firms and offered five-pound lunch vouchers for the drivers.
“We’re trying to make it as convenient as possible for our visitors and also the coach drivers, who we’ve built rest facilities for with Wi-Fi, drinks facilities and a television.
“We built it up near enough from scratch to a point now where over the last five years we’ve had over 1,500 coach visits a year.
“People are actually coming to spend and when they get here we’re fully occupied so it’s a full day of shopping for them.”