The unwanted Olympic legacy: local traders still suffering from Games downturn hope for Christmas boost

Spitalfields trader Les Bobrow says his business continues to suffer as a result of the Olympic Games. Pic: Hugh McCafferty

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With only a week to go until Christmas, businesses across Hackney and Tower Hamlets are relying on festive sales to make up for a loss in custom of up to 70 per cent during this summer’s Olympic Games, a study by Eastlondonlines shows.

ELL approached nearly 60 randomly selected high street traders across its two host boroughs, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, and asked how their revenues were affected by the 2012 Games. 42 claimed to have suffered a downturn in profit during the Olympics – with almost a quarter still suffering from the impact of that revenue loss. Nine respondents said turnover benefited from the event, and eight felt there was no noticeable difference. As the end of the year approaches, many participants were concerned that their annual figures will be down on last year’s as a direct result of lost custom during this summer’s event.

In the ‘Olympics manifesto’ delivered by Boris Johnson in March, the mayor spoke of “lasting economic benefits for London”, promising a business boost which “all Londoners [could] benefit from, whether a taxi driver or a coffee shop owner.”

But it seems Johnson may have got it wrong, as Stoke Newington taxi company Premier Cars told ELL that the number of customers during the Games was “lower than expected, and the knock-on effect continued for several months after”. Many coffee shops across the two boroughs also said that regular custom was chased away by worries about overcrowding and traffic that never materialised, and because Olympic organisers promoted big shopping malls and corporate companies at the expense of smaller high street businesses.

The well-known Boisdale restaurant chain reported huge losses at their Canary Wharf venue during the Olympic period. “Approximately 70 per cent of regular customers were either on holiday, working from home or, in many cases, had moved to other offices further west to avoid what was perceived to be travel chaos in the east,” said deputy managing director, Nathan Evans.

For Les Bobrow, whose toy and fancy dress business Wood’n’Things has been a favourite at Spitalfields Market for over a decade, the Olympic period saw a 28 per cent loss in trade compared to last year. He told ELL that as soon as preparations to host the Games began, his shop started to take the hit.

“Six weeks prior to the Olympics, we had major disruptions on the rails,” he explained. “On the weekends, there was major engineering work in Liverpool Street Station to cope with the Olympics. I noticed a dramatic drop-off in trade then. I worked it out as a 28 per cent drop at the weekends, compared to last year.” Altogether in 2012, Brobow’s total annual revenue is 40 per cent less than the previous year.

Bobrow also said that traders had been encouraged to buy extra stock in preparation for the Games – stock that they couldn’t sell off. “They said there was going to be a massive boom in trade. I did get extra stock in and then general trade just dropped off. I don’t know anyone here [in Spitalfields] that’s up on last year.”

The advice to buy more stock than normal was provided by TfL. “Because of the difficulty with freight during the Games, we did recommend that businesses stockpile as one option – if they had the ability to,” a representative told Eastlondonlines.

But Bobrow said the advice was misguided and undermined by Olympic organisers who prioritised particular businesses: “We got the overall general impression that there would be thousands of people coming to London – which they did, but they didn’t come here. The Olympics was the best advertising campaign for Stratford, for Westfield. I’ve got a couple of friends in Stratford and they reckon their trade was six-fold. So, they done well out of it.”

According to VisitBritain, total overseas visitors to the UK fell in July and August 2012, compared to the previous year.

Business has picked up for Bobrow in the approach to Christmas, but he believed the knock-on effects of the summer downturn will be significant if things don’t improve a great deal before the New Year.

Although sentiments towards the Olympics were generally negative among the Spitalfields traders to whom ELL spoke, there were some who said the Games had been good for business. Keeley Byrne, owner of Kitty’s Closet, said she had enjoyed a boost in online sales since August. “[The Olympics] brought in extra visitors to the market. We’ve included them on our client database and increased internet sales.”

Up the road in Shoreditch, ELL discovered the largest area of increased trade across the two boroughs. International chains such as FiftyFiveDSL and New Era reported a positive impact on sales, along with smaller groups and independent businesses such as sister pubs The Queen of Hoxton and The Book Club, and coffee shop Shoreditch Grind.

The Book Club, on Leonard Street, sought to capitalise on the Games in true Hackney-style: by organising a pop-up venture in a nearby car park during the event. “On sunny days it was rammed,” said Freya Coote, PR manager for the venue. And the new customers have stuck around and kept sales up post-Games, she told ELL.

FiftyFiveDSL in Shoreditch’s pop-up mall, Boxpark, agreed that the impact of the Games had so far had a lasting positive impact. “There are definitely still more tourists in the area”, Jonathan Ramm, store manager, said.

A Hackney Council spokesperson told ELL that the council had “hosted national and international press as well as residents and visitors at its pop-up venue Hackney House, which acted as a showcase for the borough around Games time.

“Despite the London-wide trend of reduced trade during Games time some areas of Hackney, such as Shoreditch, saw an increase in business.”

According to the figures gathered by ELL, nearly three quarters of businesses surveyed reported a noticeable drop in sales over the course of the Games, suggesting those who benefited were in the minority and that many are still suffering from these losses – a problem likely to have been  exacerbated by the economic climate.

Many local businesses ELL spoke to across Hackney and Tower Hamlets said they see Christmas as the last chance to bring annual turnover back up and make amends after the sting of the Olympic summer.

Joanna De Guia, head of Victoria Park Business Association, said, “2012 was unexpectedly one of the hardest years we’ve ever had, as a direct result of the Olympics and the way they were handled. As a result, we are all desperately keeping our fingers crossed that Christmas will buck the trend and counterbalance the Olympic effect. We need people to please, please, please shop local and support local businesses who have had such a tough time because of this.”

Browse the map of respondents below and click on the pins to view their individual comments:

Sophie Robinson-Tillett and Hugh McCafferty

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