THE number of vacant shops in Henley continues to fall.
There are now 12 empty premises in the town, the lowest total since the Standard launched its Think Local campaign more than three years ago.
In the past six months, five new businesses have opened and the same amount have closed.
The new businesses are menswear shop Laurence and the Blue Cross charity shop, both in Duke Street, chair specialist HSL in Reading Road, estate agent Sotheby’s in Hart Street and tattoo parlour No Limits in Station Road.
In addition, Annie Haimes Interiors has moved after a decade in Duke Street to larger premises in Bell Street with a three- storey showroom opposite. The closures were card shop Clintons, Le Parisien restaurant, both in Bell Street, Model Miniatures and the ten20 gallery in Reading Road and Oxbridge Sports in Hart Street.
The latter two businesses had been open for less than a year — ten20 opened in March but closed within two months while Oxbridge Sports opened in September and closed a few weeks ago.
Little Nellie’s sweet shop in Friday Street is due to close next month when owner Kay Harman’s lease runs out. The shop opened in 2008 but Miss Harman says the recession and the rising price of sugar have made trading difficult.
Henley’s retailing fortunes compare favourably with the British economy, which shrank by 0.7 per cent in the second quarter of this year, marking the third successive quarter of contraction.
Henley MP John Howell said: “Henley remains a good place to do business. It is always a shame when some businesses do not make a success of things but I am confident that the economy of Henley and the surrounding area shows that we are very much open for businesses.
“I have been trying to ensure that our businesses have the skills for the future and have been working with local businesses along those lines. There is always a churn of businesses — what we have got to do is to ensure that we give as much help as we can to those that want to make a go of it.”
Henley Mayor Elizabeth Hodgkin said: “It is a difficult time to open a new business and I suppose you have got to be in it for the long haul, which is quite difficult.
“We could do with filling the empty shops in prime locations, such as the old Hearns of Henley shoe shop in Market Place.
“The town always seems quite busy and we have got some good shops which work really hard to give customers what they want.”
Town centre manager Peter McConnell said: “I don’t think Henley is totally recession-proof. I have spoken to a number of independent shopkeepers and it is a tough period for them. Having said that, Henley is in a much better position than a lot of other towns in the region. The independents aren’t worried they are going to go out of business, although their profits probably aren’t as high as they were a year ago.
“Starting a business is very difficult, not just because of the economy but because the available properties in Henley do have fairly high rents and rates so there is quite a lot of expense before you even buy your stock.”
He emphasised the importance of residents shopping locally, saying: “People will shop at the multiples and the chain stores, especially for food, but I think they are also very supportive of the local shops and we are lucky to have some very good shops.”
Julie Perigo, who chairs the business and retail group of the Henley Partnership, said: “The fact that two shops closed within a year shows how difficult it is to start a new business but I don’t think it is necessarily worse now. Understanding the target market and its needs and then getting the business model right is the key.
“We believe its tremendously important to shop locally and support our local businesses. Fortunately, a good variety of interesting, independent shops also attracts other visitors, so it should be a virtuous circle.”
Sue Brown, manager of HSL, said: “Business began slowly but it is picking up nicely as customers find their way to us.”
Laurence Morris, owner of Laurence, said: “It’s going absolutely to plan. The regatta was very good for me, despite the weather.”
Annie Haimes said: “There is definitely a buzz in Henley. People like to shop locally when they can and I think the shops we have offer variety.”