THERE are plans for city centre shops to stay open later into the evenings to cash in on Exeter’s growing reputation as the region’s top retail destination.
They are being urged to follow the example of John Lewis and stay open later.
It is seen as a first step in closing the “yawning gap” between the city’s day time and night time economy, and move Exeter’s trading hours from the 1980s to the 21st century, according to business leaders.
And some have urged them to go further, adopting European-style trading hours and staying open until 7pm every day.
Exeter’s city centre manager, together with the managers of the Guildhall Shopping Centre and Princesshay, have met with retailers to discuss the importance of rationalising shopping hours in the city centre.
Andrew McNeilly, manager of the Guildhall Shopping Centre, said: “Our analysis in both Princesshay and the Guildhall during December shows that customer spending was up 30 per cent after 6pm.
“Trading in the early morning was significantly less than at the end of the day so there is a clear preference that shoppers want to be able to shop after work.”
Mr McNeilly said if shops stay open later it would stagger the time people are leaving the city, which could cut down rush hour queues. He said: “We would be giving our customers more choice and it may be able to help ease congestion.
“At the moment there is a yawning gap between when the shops close and when, say, people will be going out for a meal. We want to close that gap between the day time and night time economy. We want Exeter to be this regional powerhouse – but retailers are still trading in the 80s. Bristol, Southampton and now Cardiff are really switched on to how our lifestyles have changed.
“If we can make this change it will give people more choice and real winners will be our restaurants and cafés.”
According to Mr McNeilly, the current plan is to rationalise closing times across the city centre to 6pm every day, 7pm on a Thursday and 5pm on a Sunday.
John Harvey, city centre manager, told the Echo that making changes to city centre trading hours was a “key priority” for 2014, and he wanted to see greater consistency among stores.
“I hope that in the next few weeks we’ll make progress on how we might implement changes to city centre opening hours from the spring,” he said.
“This is a key priority for 2014. I know there is support among the shopping public who expect us to make changes. I don’t think we are doing well enough at delivering opening hours which are convenient for our customers and this has to be an area for improvement.”
Some have called for the city centre shops to remain open until 7pm every day.
Councillor David Henson, a member of Exeter’s night-time economy working group, said city centre shops should not open until at least 10am and stay open until 7pm.
He said he favoured a more European-style of trading hours in Exeter.
“In Europe the shops don’t open until 10am or 10.30am and go on until later. Here the shops open at 9am and close at 5.30pm and if you ask why they say it is historic,” he said.
“People are not going to go home from work and then bother to come back into the town in the evening, but if the businesses continue into the evening they are more likely to stay.”
Cllr Henson said he would also like to see the Christmas offer of free parking after 5pm in city car park extended. He said: “This worked leading up to Christmas; the town buzzed.”
Derek Phillips, vice president of Exeter Chamber of Commerce, is backing the move to later opening.
He said: “The chamber has been trying to persuade retailers to stay open later and we got an agreement from John Lewis that they would stay open until 7pm to try to encourage other shops. Stagecoach is prepared to change park and ride times if there’s demand and it will also help ease congestion, so I see lots and lots of pluses for it.”
Kate Connock, manager of John Lewis Exeter, said others should follow its example.
“It is great to see the business leaders in the city taking a proactive look at trading hours, with the customer needs front of mind,” she said.
“We all lead busy lives balancing work with family commitments and finding leisure time is increasingly challenging, so offering alternative times to shop like a late night means we more closely meet the needs of our customers.”
A Stagecoach spokesperson said: “We are very supportive of any initiative which helps to develop Exeter city centre’s evening economy. As such, we will be ensuring all retailers have detailed information on our extensive evening bus services and we will also be looking at adding one or two extra journeys to certain services to help support the initiative.”