Small business chiefs say Devizes shops have survived the pandemic less battered than some towns in Wiltshire but they warn - “now we’ve got to use them or lose them”.

An annual economic assessment report released today by the Centre For Cities reveals that Covid-19 has cost some city and large town centres in the South West more than half a year’s worth of potential takings since March 2020.

According to the Cities Outlook 202, Swindon is among the worst hit towns during the pandemic – with shops and businesses in the centre seeing 28 weeks of lost sales since March 2020.

But business leaders in Devizes report that the town has weathered the storm of the lockdown and other restrictions due to the flexibility of traders and the loyalty of local shoppers working from home.

“Devizes retail has managed to survive the worst of the effects of the pandemic as can be seen in the high occupancy rates of shops in the town,” said Bob Gilmore, president of the Devizes Chamber of Commerce.

He added: “Anecdotally, locally businesses are now doing well but have been affected mostly by Covid-related transport supply issues and the burden of lost business during the lockdown periods.

“Devizes is fortunate to have an exciting range of independent retailers and these local shop keepers are adept at providing alternative solutions to these problems, compared to the no-can-do response of online.

“Working from home during lockdown has allowed the local population to be able to reconsider what the town has to offer and there is a noticeable move towards shopping locally. Lockdown and the subsequent loss of social contact has led many people to visit the shops in town for the face-to-face shopping experience that has been lacking during isolation.”

Justina Pettifer at The Healthy Life in the Little Brittox, added: “The pandemic has been a crushing blow to everyone in retail and hospitality. However, Devizes has a strong community spirit and as such efforts to support local was in full flow during the run up to Christmas.

“Our town has a great selection of independents and this not only helps locally but we have noticed an increase in tourists visiting the town. This year more than ever we need to continue to shop local as this is having the greatest positive impact on the town.”

Ruth Lambert, development manager for the Federation of Small Business in Somerset and Wiltshire, also said that Devizes had benefitted from the lockdown side-effect of more people having to stay – and shop – within the town.

She said: “Of course Devizes has suffered commercially from the pandemic, but with the work from home ruling I would suspect they have also picked up trade from more people being around during the day. “

She added: “Smaller towns seem to have done better than larger city centres where offices were standing empty. The challenge for small businesses has been keeping open when they run on very small teams, who have been sick or isolating.

“Enforced closures have also eaten into any reserves they had which makes it harder to weather tough times. This Christmas we know people were doing more online shopping as they were often voluntarily isolating to protect themselves so they could preserve family Christmas celebrations. “

The Devizes-based Wiltshire councillor Iain Wallis, lead of the town’s Area Boards for Business and Economy, also praised the adaptability of independent local businesses in dealing with the problems created by Covid-cased restrictions.

The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald: Cllr Iain Wallis praised local traders' adaptabilityCllr Iain Wallis praised local traders' adaptability

Cllr Wallis said: “Undoubtedly businesses have suffered, but there have also been opportunities which our excellent local independent businesses have been able to adapt to.

"At the beginning of the Pandemic I had a small business and Covid played a part in the decision to close it. The shop I left was filled very quickly and another business is now starting to grow there which is something that small independent businesses are great at.

"What’s great in Devizes is that we do have plenty of businesses who have been here for many years and when a business does move on the shop is really empty for very long.”

But Cllr Wallis and the other local business leaders all cautioned that if shops and traders in Devizes are to climb back and flourish then it is up to residents to give them more support.

“It really is a case of use them or lose them,” said Ms Lambert, “We know that for every £1 you spend 63p stays in the local economy versus 40p with larger corporates.”

She added: “This is important more so now than ever before as many small businesses are struggling to survive. If we want to have a vibrant local community and somewhere lovely to live, we need to support those that make it more interesting and appealing.”

Mr Holman said: “Now that shoppers are re-connecting with the high street, it is vitally important that this trend continues so that the town can continue to offer a rich and varied shopping experience.”

Cllr Wallis also urged that the town’s shopping future is in the hands of the town’s shoppers.

He said: “When it comes to any facility we enjoy having in Devizes we have to remember if the demand isn’t there then the service may not be there for ever either.

“It takes a lot of resources and dedication to run a business, often on very tight margins and little return, so unless we use the businesses we want to see in the town they will have little choice than to think again about their business.”