A tale of two towns for traders as workers stay away from the office

A tale of two towns for traders as workers stay away from the office

Informal soundings taken by the Times amongst retailers show that some who rely on lunchtime trade are seeing a 60 per cent drop in revenue compared to pre-pandemic levels. And they are blaming home working.

Those running cafes, sandwich and coffee shops say business has not recovered and problems have been exacerbated by increased absence of office workers.

Hirion Ali, who runs Indian Street Food at Central Market – formerly known as Ely Court at Royal Victoria Place – said trade was down 60 per cent compared to pre-pandemic income streams.

He told the Times: “When we first opened, the whole market was buzzing and we would make between £3,000-£4,000 a week.

“These days we are lucky if we take around £1,200. I would say we are 60 per cent down.”

He added that the majority of trade has dropped off at lunchtimes.

He said: “A lot of the offices were our trade for lunchtime, from 12 to three.

“But if people are not going into the offices, it’s a domino effect, and it is not just us, you go to any other small business around here and they will say the same thing.

“I can’t afford to have staff on, I work seven days a week because I cannot afford staff. When I first opened, I had three staff, but now I cannot pay them.”

The forthcoming decision by AXA Health to close its offices opposite the Town Hall has also worried traders.

The insurance group, which employs around 2,000 people in the town, put its Crescent Road offices at Eynsham House and Phillips House on the market earlier this year. The offices are currently open.

The two buildings house approximately 1,000 staff, most of whom will soon be working from home or using one of AXA’s other offices, such as their main site in Hawkenbury.

When the closures were announced in June, AXA said its ‘commitment to the Tunbridge Wells area’ remained unchanged.

Tracy Garrad said: “We believe that, like many of the population, our employees are continuing to heed the coronavirus guidance and are being responsible in how they approach returning to the office. As such, there’s likely to be an air of caution at the moment in light of ongoing infection rates.

“But we do know that, going forward, our employees value the importance of seeing each other face to face and many look to spend days in the office (alongside homeworking) for meeting colleagues and collaborative working. And this undoubtedly involves coffee-stops and taking advantage of all Tunbridge Wells has to offer.”

At coffee shop Esquires on Mount Pleasant Road, Thomas Saunders, supervisor, said straight after restrictions eased earlier this year the business was ‘jam packed’.

“There would be people in here with laptops at every single seat,” he added. “Now, there isn’t so much business, there are still people coming in to do their work but it has kind of died down.

“You still see the odd regulars coming in every day in the week, they always have their drink and their food, and it is lovely. But it is not as many people as before.

“We have AXA in every day, about 50 people coming from there. So I think that will be a big chunk of the business gone, because they always come in here getting their coffee. That will definitely hit us.”

Despite this downturn at the top of town, traders on the lower end of the town centre near the High Street and The Pantiles say they are faring much better.

Kate Phillips, supervisor, at coffee shop Lodge on the HIgh Street, said: “Business has been gradually picking up, we are one of three branches. The shop in Maidstone has been doing better during Covid because everyone has been out exercising, we have been quieter but generally picking up every week.”

She continued: “In the centre and top parts of town, some of the shops are shut. We are lucky down here because there is more down here to do.

“With the High Street and The Pantiles, it is nice to see more traders. There are more local and more interesting shops. Tourism wise, people are down this end of town.”

At Hudsons Coffee and Kitchen on Chapel Place, manager Elaine Rose said business there was ‘good’.

“We have been open for six weeks now and we are steadily building our clients because we are a brand new business and trade has been good.

“We have had people working from here with their laptops and we are doing a dedicated space downstairs.”

She also believed the number of shops that were closed at the top of town was affecting businesses.

“A lot of shops in the town have closed, that’s what I hear from customers coming in, that it is quite empty.”

CEO of RTW Together, Sarah-Jane Adams, said trade was returning to the town centre.

She told the Times: “We’re hearing from many of the town centre businesses that we represent, that levels of trade are approaching, and in some case surpassing pre-pandemic levels, particularly in hospitality.

“They attribute this to the loyalty of Tunbridge Wells customers, who they see as being keen to come back and support the businesses they know and love, understanding how important their patronage is, especially for independents.

“We believe that Christmas shoppers are out early this year, to stock up on essentials and prepare for the festivities ahead, but also to recoup some of the shopping and entertainment enjoyment that has been reduced over the past couple of years – and our hope is that they will continue to spend from an earlier point right up until the big day.”

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