The shops that dropped: How the pandemic has changed the face of Birmingham retail

  • Video report by Pablo Taylor

In the last year, Birmingham has lost some key players to its vast array of shops, and there are fears the city's retail sector is damaged beyond repair.

The flagship John Lewis store went in July and Arcadia's collapse led to Topshop's closure in November.

Meanwhile Debenhams, which is spread over four floors of the Bullring Shopping Centre, will shut in the next few weeks. 

It means Birmingham now has six football pitches worth of empty retail space to fill.

Debenhams is expected to fully close down by 15 May, but has opened briefly after lockdown to clear stock. Credit: PA

Can shopping centres and high streets thrive in a post-pandemic climate?

Earlier this month shoppers in Birmingham returned to stores for the first time this year.

But for the shops that are still standing next to empty units vacated by the likes of Topshop and John Lewis, the months ahead could be difficult, with lockdown having changed many people's shopping habits.

 Professor Isabelle Szmigin from Birmingham Business School says more and more people have had to adapt to shopping online due to lockdown, particularly those of the older generation.

"They're going to continue because they've learnt how to use it, they're now more comfortable than they possibly were before."

Despite the struggles facing many stores, Primark had record sales during its first week back after lockdown. 

Its success seems to be reliant on the fact customers can only shop in-store, and not online.

This strategy to get customers back might be why more cafes, restaurants and leisure venues are opening up across the city, offering an experience that cannot be enjoyed online.

For example, The Forever 21 fashion store in the Bullring closed at the start of last year, and will be replaced with an adventure golf complex.

Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retail Association, says "service retailing works, because you can't get it online."

The history of the Birmingham shopping experience:

The importance of retail in Birmingham goes back decades, as the first Bullring shopping centre was built in the early 1960s, and was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh.

It was redeveloped to its current modern appearance between 2000 and 2003.

Even before the 1960s, it's believed the Bullring site has been used for trade as far back as the 12th century.

Clare Osman worked at Rackhams in the 1980s, the store now known as House of Fraser.

Part of it's once-famous cosmetics team, she has witnessed the gradual decline of Birmingham's department stores over the decades.

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