How can Ipswich and Bury bring back the Christmas shoppers?
- Credit: Paul Geater
Christmas lights are going up. Preparations are under way for festive fairs. And businesses in town centres are praying that the customers will return after last year's lockdowns.
But they are aware that once again things will feel different to how they were in 2019 as the effects of the pandemic - and the changes it has brought to everyone's life - continue to be felt.
In Ipswich town centre last month footfall - the number of people who were recorded in the town - was up by 30% on September. It was up by a similar figure on October last year and businesses are confident that they should be seeing many more customers this year.
However numbers are still down on the pre-pandemic Christmas of 2019 - and according to Ipswich Central chief executive Paul Clement that is largely down to the continuing absence of town centre office workers.
That was affecting both retailers and the town's restaurants and cafes - although the night-time economy had improved significantly and here there are challenges in attracting staff.
Mr Clement said: "There still aren't as many people using cafes or takeaways as there were before at lunchtime - but it's different in the evenings. Try to book a table on any night from Thursday to Sunday in many restaurants and you'll find you need to get in well in advance."
Retailers were cautiously optimistic about the Christmas period - but they needed to be because of its overall importance to their businesses.
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Mr Clement said: "You have to remember that for many businesses they do a third of their annual turnover during the next seven weeks. It is vital that they get the support they need."
The Christmas lights in Ipswich will be on in time for the first late night shopping on November 18 - but there will be no "switch on" ceremony again this year.
But there are a series of events to attract shoppers - including The Saints Festive Street Market on November 28 and the Farmer's Market the following Sunday. The modern tree on the Waterfront has already gone up.
There is also the return of the St Mary le Tower Christmas Tree festival and special events in the Cornhill on late-night shopping Thursdays in the run-up to Christmas.
People will also be able to book slots to drive through the town centre to see the lights on Sunday evenings during the run-up to Christmas.
Sarah Barber, Portfolio Holder for the Town Centre said: "When the town gets decked up in lights that’s when the Christmas spirit starts for me and I hope they, along with the two Christmas trees and exciting late-night shopping entertainment, bring some festive cheer to people in the run up to the holidays.
“The drive-through events promise to be a success again this year, especially with the extra two dates we have scheduled. I know how popular they were last year and I urge those wanting to attend to get in quick as tickets are limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis.”
In Bury St Edmunds as well things have not entirely returned to normal this year - the Bury Christmas Market which normally brings thousands of visitors to the town was cancelled earlier in the year because of uncertainty over Covid.
But there are a number of smaller events planned and Mark Cordell from Our Bury St Edmunds said traders were hopeful that a steady flow of visitors, rather than a major festival over only a few days, could benefit them.
He said: "From a visitor numbers point of view the loss of the Christmas Fayre will detrimentally affect many town centre businesses but it is accepted that some, who didn’t benefit from the influx of over 100,000 visitors over the weekend, will not be quite so disappointed."
His organisation and tourist group Bury St Edmunds and Beyond had teamed up with local councils, the Arc shopping centre and cathedral to develop a partnership aimed at encouraging visitors.
This has organised a Christmas lights event on November 18, a Christmas trail, a Santa Experience and a Christmas Market in the Cathedral at the end of December.
Mr Cordell added: "Although we will miss the influx of visitors and the boost to the local economy that the Christmas Fayre brought in we have all taken a very positive approach in ensuring that there is still lots to do when visiting Bury St Edmunds."