Castle Arcade during what should have been the Christmas rush.

Castle Arcade during what should have been the Christmas rush.

Since the start of the year we have seen a gap left in many high streets with the closure of Woolworths, one of Britain’s oldest and best known chain stores. The Pier home furnishings is another casualty of the recession, along with MFI homestores and Whittard of Chelsea, the tea and coffee merchants.

The economic downturn gripping the country is certainly having an affect on many high street retailers. As we saw from the decision by Marks & Spencer to cut over one thousand jobs, no brand is immune.

Cardiff’s under-cover arcades have formed part of the city’s charm for over a century. Full of unique boutiques and specialist stores, the arcades provide visitors and residents with an enchanting alternative to the bland brands found all over Britain.

A shot of the arcade from the first floor balcony

A shot of the arcade from the first floor balcony.

Rented or owned by independent retailers, what you won’t see in these shop windows are perpetual sale signs. Unable to compete with the high street’s slashing of prices and brash declarations of discounts; shopkeepers in the arcades have to hope customer loyalty, and the fact they offer something a little different, will be enough.

Castle Arcade, so named because its entrance is directly opposite Cardiff Castle, is one of the most popular of these retail gems. Built in 1887, the Victorian arcade maintains many of its original features, producing an ambience of luxury.

On entering Castle Arcade the first thing to strike you is a conspicuous absence of chain stores. Pizza Express is the one blot on the copybook. But since it occupies a store stretching right back to St Mary Street, the front door is not within the arcade.

Instead of Starbucks there is Comfortably Numb coffee shop. Claire Grove Buttons offers something more than Claire’s Accessories and Troutmark Books has far more character than WHSmith.

Karen and her family make most of their menu from scratch. This leads to some early mornings!

Karen (Madame Fromage) and her family make most of their menu from scratch. This leads to some early mornings!

Madame Fromage is a family run delicatessen, which found its home in Castle Arcade over three years ago. Karen Cummington, 48, the shop owner, is aiming to give the business an online shopping facility, providing customers with a checkout much like the one at tesco.com.

In Karen’s line of trade it is these large supermarkets which pose the greatest threat: “They are killing people like me, I wish they’d stay away from the specialist areas. It’s unfair really, they should leave people like me to the niche market, they have got to be stopped.”

Unfortunately, in these purse-tightening times, customers are taking the price of goods into account far more. Karen has noticed a difference in the type of items regulars will plump to buy: “More expensive items just aren’t moving because people are not prepared to spend the money. Some people don’t come as often to us.”

She felt in the run up to Christmas, while the high street was buzzing, her arcade was strangely empty. In a time which would traditionally have been their busiest, shopkeepers were chatting daily about their worries and who was the latest to go under.

Two shops along Heidi Davies, 42, owns Funky Monkey Feet, a children’s shoe shop. She too has noticed a difference in consumer attitudes: “Everybody wants a discount, before it was only really cheeky people who would ask. They still want the product and have the urge to spend but they just haven’t got the money.”

Chain stores have played a big role in mindset changes. Since people see sales in all their high street favourites, they expect them to be everywhere. But independent retailers have their overheads to think about and often sell many different products of better quality, which they cannot afford to mark down.

Heidi gets a lot of her stock from Europe so the declining value of the pound has also had an affect on her margins. Energy bills are higher than last year and fewer leniencies from suppliers have led to a tightening of her belt: “As my bank manager told me, all you can do is work more in order to pay less.” Heidi works seven days a week.

Heidi from Funky Monkey Feet has felt the pressure to put on sales.

Heidi from Funky Monkey Feet has felt the pressure to put on sales.

City Surf has been open for 24 years. Darren Evans, 47, manager of the shop, thinks one way of combating sale-mania would be to follow France’s example and put laws in place to limit how often they can be held: “January sales used to be January sales, now they [large chain stores] do them whenever they want.”

In truth, as we slide head-long into recession, consumers are refusing to be drawn in by sales gimmicks. This week the British Retail Consortium released a report showing December 2008 had the sharpest falling sales figures on record.

In this climate independents are bound to suffer. But the arcades in Cardiff have passed the test of time thus far. Shopkeepers in touch with what their customers want, and who are willing to make changes, have every chance of weathering the storm.

The rest may not be so lucky.

Empty spaces, each of the retailers had stories of friends forced out of business.

Empty spaces: each of the retailers had stories of friends forced out of business.

Audio link

Slideshow link