Sunnier in the suburbs

On leaving the Royal Academy last Sunday after viewing this year’s Summer Exhibition it felt like a much more airy and less frenetic experience than previous year’s, with the art seemingly less crammed together on the walls. 

But then I realised it was nothing to do with the art at all. It was instead all about the fact we weren’t packed in like sardines with other visitors all craning our necks to get a half-decent sighting of the works. At times, we had whole rooms to ourselves, which would have been unthinkable any other year, and it made for a much more enjoyable experience. 

This turned out to be an all-too-rare escape from the troubles. I’m unable to think of any other positives to be drawn from the current situation. Certainly for central London, the ongoing restrictive measures being enforced and the continued ambivalence towards hospitality by the city’s mayor has created an environment of slow death for far too many businesses. Tier two added to the misery and resulted in massive cancellations of bookings. When you have a progressive operator like Jonathan Downey calling time on all parts of his business, and liquidating the company, you know things have turned very bad indeed.

With ever-diminishing reasons to journey into the capital – for either work or pleasure – the dearth of people in central London is increasingly painful to experience. Many of them are now ensconced in the suburbs and commuter belt towns. There seems little doubt the burbs are having their moment in the sun and the negative connotations of suburbia have been largely forgotten. The action has moved from the metropolises and into the towns and villages outside these major cities where there are, thankfully, some bright spots.

Even house prices are proving buoyant. During 2020 they have increased in 16 out of 20 of the “villages” around London with Balham up 7.4%, Banstead 7.1%, Kingston 6.9%, Kew 6.2% and Twickenham 5.8%, according to Hamptons International. It’s a similar story around the country.

This shift of focus has been very clear to the ever-lucid David Page, chairman of Fulham Shore, who has seen a complete reversal in the fortunes of his estate. Some of the suburban restaurants are currently breaking trading records whereas the previous high flyers in the West End of London and central Manchester are the laggards. “Our policy of opening in London villages has borne fruit, as many commuters are now working from home. These Franco Manca sites are busier than they have ever been,” he says. 

It is a similar story at Peach pub company where even the negative hit from the 10pm curfew has not detracted from management’s view that the estate of 19 pubs is in as “good a place as any hospitality business” and that it will be close to break even over the winter period to April 2021. Loungers is also trading extremely well with a recent statement revealing like-for-like sales growth of 25.1% for the 13 weeks to October 4 as it benefits from its exposure to more suburban locations. Its strategy is in contrast to other groups that might have deemed some of its openings to be in areas insufficiently fashionable. Loungers has been cleverly picking Sittingbourne over Soho for some years.

Newly opened: Sentado Lounge in Sittingbourne

Another operator that is flying on the back of its commuter belt market town locations is Oakman Inns. For the 13 weeks to October 4, its 24 pubs and restaurants recorded an impressive like-for-like sales increase of 45.5% for food and 12.7% for drinks. It has also benefited from its chunky-sized sites with large, open-plan configurations and extensive gardens that have given confidence to nervous customers. This is what your cash buys you out in the sticks. 

Needless to say Oakman’s food and drink offer has also very much hit the spot. And for the winter period, the company is to install modular glazed garden pods to keep its customers warm through the season’s cold, dark nights. It’s great to see these businesses battling through these tough times and enjoying some success. 

It presents an altogether different image compared to Central London – and other large city centres – where even the Royal Academy’s key event of the year has been renamed the Winter Exhibition. The fact that even the summer turned into winter does not, very sadly, bode well for the chilly months ahead.

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.