THE number of vacant shops in Henley has reached single figures for the first time since the Standard launched its Think Local campaign almost four years ago.
There will be just eight empty premises in the town once stationery shop Paperchase opens in Bell Street in a few weeks’ time, giving a vacancy rate of around four per cent.
This bucks the national trend, which has seen vacancy rates soar to their highest level on record.
Six new businesses have opened in the past three months — Jack’s Gallery and Thai restaurant Giggling Squid, both in Hart Street, Henley Car Hire in Reading Road, the Sue Ryder charity shop in Duke Street, the Henley Brewhouse pub in Market Place and skateboarding shop Yeuk in Friday Street.
The only closure was Little Nellie’s Sweet Shop in Friday Street.
Menswear shop Sullivans moved from Hart Street to larger premises in Duke Street while ladieswear shop Noa Noa moved to premises opposite its original store in the same street.
Henley’s retailing fortunes compare favourably with other towns.
A report published by the British Retail Consortium last week showed the national town centre vacancy rate last month was 11.3 per cent and footfall in the three months to October was 0.4 per cent lower than a year ago.
Henley MP John Howell said: “It is very important to shop locally. We have made great efforts to support the idea of town centre first and to give local communities strong powers to enforce it.
“However, this really is a question of ‘use it or lose it’. We have to look after our own. Henley is doing rather well at this.
“It is a question of keeping the focus on the subject so that we don’t let the situation slip. The Henley Standard has done us all a good service in keeping us focused on the number of empty shops we have in the town. This is a success story and one we will all want to keep at the front of our minds as we approach Christmas.”
Henley Mayor Elizabeth Hodgkin said she was delighted that Henley businesses had continued to thrive in the economic downturn.
She said: “In Maidenhead they are really suffering and it is quite dead in their town centre whereas in Henley there are always people around. It’s a busy place, the car parks are always full and that means people are shopping.”
She suggested events like tonight’s Christmas Festival give traders a good opportunity to promote themselves.
Councillor Hodgkin said: “They are showcasing what they have got and perhaps people will come in and not spend very much but if you make people feel welcome they are going to come back. There are going to be thousands of people in the town and it is up to shopkeepers to put themselves out there.”
The Mayor said she would like to see the remaining closed shops trading, especially the former Hearns of Henley shoe shop in Market Place.
“I would love to see it re-opened because it’s such an important shop,” she said.
Peter McConnell, the town centre manager, said: “We are still in tough economic times and figures coming out of the Government show it is not easy out there for shopkeepers.
“The vacancy rate of other market towns across the country is an average of 15 per cent. For us to be running at less than four per cent is absolutely phenomenal and shows what a dynamic, vibrant and lively town we are.
“I know how tough it is to run a successful shop at any time so this is a fantastic achievement.”
Julie Perigo, who chairs the business and retail group of the Henley Partnership, praised traders for showing resilience during tough times.
She said: “We have strong retailers who have directed attention not only to their shop fronts but to moving online, which I think is yet another way of promoting sustainbility.
“We are also remarkably lucky- it would be lovely to say that it is all down to Henley retailers being fantastic but we have also got the additional benefits in that we are a wealthy area and we have a pretty town which encourages tourism.”
Traders who have recently opened businesses in Henley say they have been pleased with the level of local support.
Jack Free, owner of Jack’s Gallery, which opened in September, said: “It takes a bit of time to get known but business has picked up quite nicely.
“Retailing is not an easy business to be in because of all the competitors and the internet but if you offer good service, you have got what people want and you are pleasant, then people will come back. We have a fair bit of repeat business.”
Gemma Wise, assistant manager of the Sue Ryder shop, which opened earlier this month, said: “We have had a lot of support from local people which has been lovely- both through donating and shopping with us.
“We have tailored ourselves to what Henley people need and we have had people saying they are glad we are here, which is wonderful.
“The shop is doing really well - there were some teething issues at first but that’s bound to happen with a new store. We just need to make sure customers keep coming back through the door.”
The Think Local campaign was launched by the Standard in February 2009 to support and promote the local community during the recession.
In the first six months, the number of vacant premises fell from 34 to 21 and by the campaign’s first anniversary a total of 25 new businesses had started, while six had closed.
By August 2010, another 10 new businesses had started, while six had closed and there were 15 empty shops.
In the following six months four new businesses started while six closed, leaving a total of 16 empty premises by Think Local’s second anniversary.
From March to August last year 11 more businesses opened, leaving 15 vacant shops. The total of vacant shops dropped to 14 by February this year before falling to 12 by August.