Sector trends

Pride of place: Sheffield

As businesses across the UK gear up for reopening, our new series on UK high streets hears from the vibrant business community in Sheffield, which will benefit from the government’s £1bn Future High Streets Fund.

As David Scott, head of retail and leisure at the bank, points out, the UK high street has been evolving over a long period of time, but coronavirus accelerated that evolution from years into months. The purpose of the store is changing, he says, and retailers must be ready to grasp digital opportunities, nurture customers and adapt to changing customer journeys.

“There’s an awful lot of research going on as to how we repurpose high streets, how we bring in the community. All of those things will evolve,” he says. “Physical stores still have a role to play. I think the experiential aspects of retail and leisure will come out more to the fore, and I think high streets have a purpose to play not only for well-being but across the wider community.”

A series of initiatives from the government aim to rejuvenate the retail sector as a whole. As well as the Future High Streets Fund, a £56m Welcome Back Fund was announced in March to help boost the look and feel of high streets and coastal towns in England as they plan to greet visitors after lockdown, along with a High Streets Task Force of experts, which will advise town councils on how to adapt to changing consumer demands and thrive in the years ahead.

Thanks to Sheffield City Council’s successful bid for £15.8m from the Future High Streets Fund, its shopping district will be rejuvenated as part of the ongoing transformation of the city centre, reshaping how Sheffield residents and visitors use the space and building on its unique offer as a creative and sustainable “outdoor city”.

Green at heart

Sheffield has an international reputation for its steel manufacturing and is still a city of skilled and creative makers. It is home to the world’s oldest football club, Sheffield FC, and with around a third of it sitting in the Peak District National Park, it is England’s greenest city.

The focus of the new funding will be on the high street and Fargate, once the heart of the city’s shopping district, and neighbouring thoroughfares like Chapel Walk. The aim is to transform them into social hubs, with the creation of multi-use spaces for hosting events and exhibitions, and the repurposing of redundant spaces to meet the needs and demands of today’s society.

Bob Johnson, the leader of Sheffield City Council, has said the project provides hope despite the pandemic. “Our ambition is to create a future-proof city centre, where people can live, work and spend quality time with friends and family in a safe and pleasing environment.”

The prospect of contributing towards the rejuvenation of the high street, buoyed by various avenues of business support, is an exciting one for Sheffield’s proud entrepreneurs.

A bird in the hand

Michelle Walton is the owner of Bird’s Yard, in independent gift shop that showcases the work of talented designers, makers and artists and their unique homewares, clothes, jewellery, food and stationery. Located in Chapel Walk, Bird’s Yard provides rentable spaces to creatives so they can sell their wares, from single shelves to entire rooms.

Walton originally started the business in Leeds, but in a location off the beaten track that left the shop struggling. She says: “In 2013, I was approached by Sheffield City Council because they were looking for businesses like mine to move into the city centre and help rejuvenate high street retail.”

The city has a lot of very talented, open-minded and hard-working people who are also warm and friendly. I found everyone’s willingness to engage and support one another extremely helpful throughout the pandemic

Ben Atha
Founder at the Developer Academy

She recalls Chapel Walk as a place once buzzing with specialist independent shops –however, scaffolding and boarding put up around the entrance kept it hidden from visitors unfamiliar with the area. Not surprisingly, re-imagining the high street is something Walton is passionate about.

She says: “I’d like to see the council replicate some of the beautiful areas you see in continental cities, like Barcelona – colourful recreational spaces and green spaces for holding events and also promoting events taking place elsewhere in Sheffield. This would really draw people to the city, and to this area specifically.”

Walton also sees an opportunity to invest in more small independent specialist shops. “Some of the empty retail buildings could be filled with unique little businesses that would attract people because they are shops they won’t find in out-of-town retail parks.”

Many of her customers are Sheffield natives who are proud of their city and love putting money back into it. “They are very loyal to local businesses,” says Walton. “So many customers have kept coming back to Bird’s Yard – they love the brand and the design, and it has just kept growing, even with the boarding that went up in the last couple of years and caused a decline in sales and footfall. After the first lockdown, this was the first shop that a lot of people came to visit, even before the supermarket.”

As Walton looks forward to the future beyond the pandemic, her hopes are to see the area transformed into something beautiful that will be a draw not only for visitors but for business owners. She says: “I want to attract more creative makers to my shop, where they can start small and benefit from a high street location. And I want to continue growing the brand, maybe even opening a shop in Fargate, one selling premium products, in addition to the shop on Chapel Walk.”

Scream for ice cream

Sheffield-born and bred Yee Kwan is the owner of Yee Kwan Ice Cream, which she launched in the city centre 10 years ago. She describes Sheffield as “a big village, whose residents are very warm, very friendly, and very welcoming”.

Kwan adds: “I went to university here and originally worked as a quantity surveyor, but after my eldest son was born, we [my husband Anthony and I] decided to launch an ice cream business specialising in East Asian-flavoured ice creams and sorbets.”

With its trade primarily with the restaurant and hospitality sector, Kwan’s business was badly impacted by the pandemic. Her response was to pivot and set up an online shop offering deliveries and click-and-collect services to the general public. “The revenue from that has been a lifesaver,” she says. “We’re now looking at creating new products, for example, cakes, that complement our ice cream.”

For Kwan, the Future High Street funding to reinvigorate Fargate and other nearby streets can’t come soon enough. “Sheffield city centre has changed over the years, with a lot of empty units because businesses have closed or moved away,” she says. “We need to bring in new ideas, new businesses and new concepts. There should be more open space for entertainment, where music festivals could be held, and artists could perform. That would definitely bring more people into the city to explore what else it has to offer.”

Co-working works

Ben Atha founded his tech-training business the Developer Academy two and a half years ago. The company is located in a start-up hub, Kollider, which used to be a Co-op retail store and is now a co-working and events space with a communal food hall. Atha would like to see a fresh approach to city centre use, with a bigger focus on multi-use and event space. He is particularly pleased to see funding being used to reinvent Fargate and the high street to make the city centre a place that people will want to visit and use, and possibly even live.

He says: “Transforming the city centre into a co-working, green space, with seating areas and high-quality, safe and convenient walking, cycling and public transport routes into and around the city will surely encourage more people to visit and use it, not just for work, but for socialising, events and activities.

“I’d be more inclined to visit our co-working space if I can whizz in on an e-bike, have lunch meetings and get some outdoor exercise in a clean, green environment. It’s also a place I’d want to visit in the evenings and weekends with friends and family, instead of going to places away from the city centre.”

Speaking from experience, Atha sees Sheffield as a great place to start a business, with a wealth of business and financial support available from various start-up hubs and other resources. As his business recovers from the past year, he will be working on funded and self-funded local and national retraining programmes to help people to gain the skills needed to fill in-demand jobs, and to help businesses to recruit them. Atha says: “The city has a lot of very talented, open-minded and hard-working people who are also warm and friendly. I found everyone’s willingness to engage and support one another extremely helpful throughout the pandemic.

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of NatWest Group, as of this date and are subject to change without notice. Copyright © NatWest Group. All rights reserved.

scroll to top