End of an era for town centre store

IT was the end of an era in Lowestoft town centre this week as an 'integral part' of the local community closed its doors after almost 60 years of service.

IT was the end of an era in Lowestoft town centre this week as an 'integral part' of the local community closed its doors after almost 60 years of service.

But as shoppers converged on Woolworths for the very last time on Tuesday, the importance of shopping locally in the town in the year ahead was again re-iterated by traders' representatives.

Calling on shoppers to support local stores, particularly in these challenging times, the Lowestoft Town Management Partnership vowed to remain positive as they emphasised that 'Lowestoft is the place to shop in 2009.'

After first opening the present Woolworths store in London Road North in May 1950, there was sadness this week as staff and customers bid farewell as the shop at the heart of the town centre closed its doors for the final time.

Having been a recognisable, much-loved part of the nation's high streets, all stores have now been stripped of their stock, fixtures and fittings after the company went into administration last month.

Everything in the Lowestoft shop was sold - as tills, shelves, even the staffroom computer, CCTV cameras, chairs and tables found themselves being bid for alongside children's clothes and CDs.

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On Wednesday all that was left was an empty shell of a building, which left memories of more than a half century of trade in the town behind. A Woolworths spokesman said: 'Woolworths have been an integral part of the local community for over 50 years.'

With about 32 staff losing their jobs now that the shop has closed, there was sadness from many who had worked at the store for years. Richard Edwards had worked at the Lowestoft shop for 40 years, while Linda Reynolds had worked at the London Road North store since October 1974. 'I still can't believe it's shutting,' she said. Jill Short, who has worked in the store for 20 years, added: 'We'll miss working together, we're all good friends.'

Andy Doherty, the Lowestoft store manager who was due to work as Woolworths manager until the end of today when the store is cleared, added it had been a difficult time for everybody.

'We've had to watch the place we work in being decimated as everything has been sold,' he said.

In a Journal snapshot look at Lowestoft town centre this week, the busy stretch of London Road North currently has nine shops and stores available to be let or leased.

With traders across the country preparing to ride the storm of an economic downturn, business analyst Experian painted a gloomy picture as they claimed that the number of vacant shops in high streets nationwide was expected to more than double from 63,000 in December to a record 135,000 by the end of 2009.

Small market towns are predicted to be the hardest hit, a spokesman for the retail analysts, Bruno Rost, said: 'In the east of England it's not looking good for smaller market towns, and Lowestoft will see a vacancy rate of around 19pc of stores remaining empty by the end of February.'

But today The Journal can reveal that there could soon be better news on the horizon. A Waveney District Council spokesman confirmed that an application in London Road North including the former Woolworths store site involving 'the subdivision of existing shops into four retail units and replacement shopfronts' had already been approved.

'The planning department don't know who is going in to the units and this can change up until the last minute,' the council spokesman said.

With chartered architects Le Sage Associates acting on behalf of Ratcliffes - an independent partnership of Commercial Property Consultant Surveyors who specialise in the creation, management and value enhancement of 'prime commercial property investment portfolios,' - they have transformed shopping areas in Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn in the past.

And with Peacocks set to take over part of the old Somerfield store later this year, the chief officer of the Lowestoft and Waveney chamber of commerce, Linda Thornton, and Town Centre Manager Emma Jones both said that shoppers and retailers need to think positively and look past the current economic gloom.

Highlighting the benefits of shopping locally in Lowestoft, they said: 'With increasing job-loss and a shrinking labour market, supporting local businesses by shopping locally helps fund and maintain jobs in the area.

'There are many independent businesses in the town with a community-based ethos to help the town grow and prosper. 'By creating cohesive town centres pollution, car-dependency and urban sprawl can all be reduced to save local people money on fuel.

'A healthy retail sector is attractive to new businesses. Without it, communities do not stand much of a chance of attracting new businesses that increase the variety of products and services available for purchase,' they said.

'The Town Management Partnership is working towards making Lowestoft the place to shop in 2009, so look out for some exciting events ahead. 'It is all about 'working together' - and that's our motto for 2009.'