Ipswich is not alone in facing really tough times after pandemic

John Lewis store at Futura Park

The John Lewis store at Futura Park should reopen next month. - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

Over the last week, Ipswich appears to have had a couple of pieces of good news about its emergence from the pandemic - but for anyone who thinks that we are unique in problems we are facing, it has been a real wake-up call.

The future of the John Lewis chain of department stores and "at home" retail warehouses across the country has been a subject of speculation for months - several closed last year, and last week there was a flurry of speculation that eight more were to shut.

One US-based website produced a list of the eight to close - which included the Ipswich "at home" store.

Mercifully, the Ipswich store did not appear on the closure list. It will reopen when non-essential stores can open their doors again on April 12.

But Ipswich was the only one of eight stores on the "leaked" list not to shut - and the report did get the total number of stores to be closed spot-on.

So did the town dodge a bullet? Or was a small piece of disinformation included in list to try to deflect the fact that it had come from the company? Whatever the reason, I feel really sorry for the John Lewis staff who must have been very concerned.

We actually decided against publishing that speculation until we had further information - a decision vindicated the following day, when it was not on the list.

However, looking at the places where John Lewis shops are closing - from the huge department store in Peterborough's Queensgate Centre to the "at home" store at Basingstoke in Hampshire which, like Ipswich, shares a large unit with Waitrose - it really does show how things are changing across the country.

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Which all shows exactly why it is right for the Ipswich Vision Partnership to look at a new way of using the town as a whole, the town centre and its local communities.

The clear answer is retail is not going to save any high streets. It will be important - but it isn't going to be as important as it has been in the past.

Over the last year, more of us have come to rely on mail-order goods - but the lockdowns have also shown to many of us just how important popping down the shops is for us as a social activity.

A queue at Primark in Ipswich

Queues have been regularly seen outside Primark when it has been able to open over the last year. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

There are two reasons why there were queues outside Primark stores when they were able to open - and probably will be again next month.

Firstly, people like their clothes. But secondly, and not to be underestimated, many people still like to see and feel what they are ordering in the flesh before handing over their money.

That's not just with clothes. If you're spending £500 to £600 on a new electrical item, it's very important for many people to see it working in a showroom rather than just on a webpage - even if it is so bulky that it has to be delivered, rather than carried home in the back of a car.

But not everyone feels like that and for many, the post-pandemic town centre - and retail centres generally - will be far more about the social interaction than necessarily spending money.

For those who do like shopping in person, the old adage "use it or lose it" will be as important as ever - and that applies to national chains as much as it does to independents .

While I like independent shops, the focus that has been put on them does sometimes sound like "independents good, chain stores bad".

I have to say the loss of hundreds at jobs at Debenhams and Topshop in Ipswich is as concerning as the loss of jobs from the small independents which will not reopen.

But whatever does happen - the message is that it's not happening in Ipswich. It's happening in Basingstoke and Aberdeen, in Sheffield and Peterborough. 

All over the country, towns and cities are having to look again at what they are going to do with what they have seen as the beating heart of their communities.

At least in Ipswich, we have political and business leaders coming together and looking at ways of addressing the crisis that is coming down the track. 

None of them will have all the answers - some of their proposals may flat on their faces - but at least they're looking to the future and not just waiting for the town to be totally destroyed before anyone bothers to think ahead.

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