Businesses look forward to John Lewis effect
BUSINESS leaders have hailed the opening of John Lewis as a milestone in Exeter's quest to become the region's capital city.
But amid the excitement came warnings that other businesses cannot be complacent if they are to seize the opportunity presented by a predicted influx of new shoppers.
Derek Phillips, inset, vice-president of Exeter Chamber of Commerce, said: "We think this is an incredibly significant event for the city. It's been a great desire of Exeter's retail and business community for some time to have John Lewis. It's taken a very long time, but now it's here it's tremendous news for the city.
"It will undoubtedly bring a huge number of additional visitors and shoppers from a wider area. There's nothing more iconic than John Lewis in that respect.
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"It will be very interesting to learn from various retailers in a few months' time what a difference it makes to their trade but I have no doubt it will be very significant. I can't think of another shop that would have the same effect as John Lewis opening, and we can only look forward to footfall increasing in the city centre."
He added: "People have been talking about John Lewis for decades almost, and even the more recent discussions over traffic and the size of the shop have been very protracted, so it's been a long time in coming and hopefully will be well worth the wait.
"I don't think it will just be other retailers and shops and restaurants in the rest of the city that benefit. Having a John Lewis in your city helps recruitment for all businesses.
"It's a very special shop, so I think it will have a feelgood effect for many other businesses."
When it was announced almost two years ago that John Lewis was to open a store in Exeter, experts estimated the economic boost to the city at around £10m a year – including £2-3m a year in trade diverted from Plymouth.
And the arrival of John Lewis is expected to help Exeter climb from its current position as the 31st biggest retail centre in Great Britain – with annual expenditure of £740m – to overhaul Plymouth, which is currently ranked 27th.
Tim Jones, chairman of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, said: "This is one of those moments where we will reflect back in 20 years' time and say that was one of the most significant events.
"It's a lucky lightning strike for Exeter. It will put a massive spotlight on the Exeter community and its retail prowess and it's something we will be counting 10 to 20 years from now.
"It's a major statement of confidence from John Lewis. If you wanted to put it on a top 10 Christmas presents list it would be number one on pretty much everyone's agenda if you're looking for a retail capture."
He added: "All the concerns being expressed about traffic congestion are totally secondary. I think this is one of those things Exeter is more than capable of absorbing and adapting to.
"It will generate a lot of wider activity and will lift the quality of the retail function around it, and make a lot of the challenges Exeter is facing a lot easier to address.
"When you get a retailer like this coming it's a challenge for everyone to respond to – but what a fantastic challenge.
"It will be a triple-star positive for Exeter – there's no other way of describing it."
As well as bringing more shoppers from across the region to Exeter, it is hoped the new department store will help to spur wider changes to improve the experience of all visitors to the city.
Andrew McNeilly, right, manager of the Guildhall Shopping Centre, said: "If anyone is going to be negative about John Lewis opening, it should be me because obviously there's the potential that it shifts the centre of retail trade further up the High Street away from us. But we are all strong enough to make it work and it will be a benefit for everybody.
"John Lewis's investment in marketing and raising the profile of Exeter as a location can benefit everyone, and you have to be upbeat and positive and see the bigger picture rather than dwelling on the potential negatives.
"We are working with all the retailers in the city to more closely mirror the trading hours of John Lewis because we see the store as a catalyst to enable us to create a seamless transition between the daytime and night-time economies."
He added: "There's a lot of talk from people who are maybe slightly sceptical but John Lewis is actually going to be a catalyst for us to bring a lot of new shoppers to the city. In itself it's not going to be the golden egg that saves the whole of retail in Exeter, but it's an important part of it.
"We need to be showing as a city that we can meet those customer expectations and provide a challenge to Bristol.
"Other retailers must be in the best possible shape to capitalise on that opportunity. Anything that brings more people into the city gives everybody the opportunity to have a little nibble at it.
"The John Lewis customer is the sort of customer who has the time and possibly a bit more disposable income to explore the city. If Exeter can be their shopping destination of choice, then out of season is when it will really help us stabilise our trading.
"There's always been that desire and vision that Exeter should be the regional capital for the peninsula and I think we are so close now to fulfilling that dream. If there's a willingness to find the right site for Ikea, I can't think of what else we haven't got.
"We have officers at Exeter City Council who are passionate, driven and want to have a thriving, prosperous city and are prepared to put their heads above the parapet to achieve that. The retail and business eyes of the country are looking for cities where there's that dynamism, drive and passion because they know that people will make things work no matter what."