Prime spot: The Queen’s Head

Despite the incredible rejuvenation of the King’s Cross area of London it remains largely bereft of traditional pubs serving top-notch craft beers apart from one that has become a firm favourite of mine: The Queens Head on Acton Street. Located only a five-minute walk from the train station it was until Covid-19 in a decent position surrounded by office workers, tourists staying locally, people travelling to and from the station, as well as a few local residents.

But things are looking very different now for the pub and other such businesses. What were previously the super-prime sites in city centres and near transport hubs have now become the worst locations. Covid-19 has led to a dramatic 180-degree turnaround in the fortunes of these centrally-located operations compared with those positioned on local high streets.

Whereas brands were looking to offload their troubled suburban high street units and focus more on urban centres as well as shopping malls and transport locations this has gone completely in the other direction. Few people are commuting, nobody is travelling, and the impact is massive.

Proof of the shift can be seen in the recent Harper Dennis Hobbs Vitality Index that ranks the health of the top 1,000 retail areas. It had previously been topped with various central London locations and other city centre spots whereas the new table lists Wimbledon Village, Marlborough, Reigate, Berkhamsted, Cobham, Sherborne, Bristol Clifton and Ilkley right at the top. The rise of more local, suburban shopping and hospitality areas is clearly evident.

Those businesses that are focused on city centre locations are in dire trouble. City of London-based healthy food chain Tossed has gone into administration, travel foodservice provider SSP has stated it will likely open only 20% of its locations by the Autumn as train passenger numbers are stubbornly 85% lower than pre-Covid-19.

It is a similar story at Pret A Manger that was going great guns as it continued converting the former central London Eat units into Veggie Pret stores and expanded further into New York City. Could this business be positioned any worse I wonder? It’s hard to imagine a more shocking turnaround in its fortunes. Thirty units are to be closed including stores on Piccadilly, Fleet Street and The Strand. How much more prime can you get than Monopoly board locations?

When I was younger I used to like throwing all the Monopoly money up in the air – as you do. Covid-19 has done the same for our perceptions of what makes a prime location and we simply don’t know how things are going to land. At The Queens Head, its owner is in negotiations with the landlord who wants the rent to be paid for the full period that the pub has been closed. This is clearly a non-starter but equally worrying for the owner is that he is unsure if it is worth bothering to reopen at all. When will trade return to previous levels and what is the possibility of it never coming back?

The omens are not particularly good at the moment. A nearby King’s Cross pub has been open a number of weeks and on no single day have sales exceeded the amount that is being spent on the payroll of its employees. This is a scenario that is being played out around London and in many other city locations.

It has been the case for many years that vociferous arguments have been put forward about major conurbations, particularly London of course, as well as the leading shopping centres and travel hubs having sucked in all the investment and attention to the detriment of local high streets. As a result many have been withering away for years.

Covid-19 has devastatingly, and unexpectedly, provided a potential opportunity for businesses in these locations to capitalise on the influx of trade that they have enjoyed over the past four months or so. Whether they take it or not – and if their landlords are going to help! – is another matter. The Queens Head, and many others like it, sadly don’t have such an option right now. 

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.