Four out of five businesses in Berwick town centre say their turnover has fallen in the last 12 months, show the results of a new survey.
Research carried out by Action for Market Towns found that 79% of businesses had seen a drop in trade and 68% reported falls in profitability.
More than three-quarters (76%) said competition from out of town supermarkets had an impact on them, while two-thirds (67%) said high rents were a negative aspect of trading in the town centre.
Visitors were also highly critical of the town centre’s physical appearance with 74% rating it either poor or very poor. Nearly three-quarters of those interviewed (74%) criticised the shopping offer.
The benchmarking survey, carried out in December, was commissioned by Northumberland County Council.
Berwick Town Council is keen for a follow-up survey to be undertaken now that free parking has been introduced.
Councillor John Robertson, chairman of environment and regeneration, said: “If there is an increase in footfall this year we could say it has been as a direct result of free parking. It then helps the town council lobby county for extra resources because you have the hard facts and information to back it up.”
The council seeks to use the data to prioritise its efforts in the town centre and to help the Portas management group in its work.
The survey included footfall counts, audits on market and non-market days, interviews and shopper origin questions. Respondents were also asked to make two suggestions to improve the economic performance of the town centre.
The study discovered that 85% of town centre users felt the variety of shops was either very poor (43%) or poor (42%) - a third higher than the national small towns average.
Improvement to the retail offer was one of the key themes to emerge when town centre users were asked to make suggestions.
The survey also found that 79% of town centre users stayed for less than two hours.
Vacancy rates stood at 9% at the time of the audit, slightly higher than the national small towns average.
Over half (59%) felt the leisure and cultural offer in the town centre was poor (36%) or very poor (23%).
More than one-third (35%) said they spent between £10 and £20 on an average visit to the town centre.
Four market traders were present when the audit was taken, much lower than the regional (15) and national (17) figures.
Footfall in Berwick on a market day was 177 people per 10 minutes, whilst on a non-market day it dropped to 116. Both counts are higher than the national small towns average.
The car parking responses, taken before free parking was introduced in April, revealed that 90% of respondents and 73% of town centre users felt it was a negative aspect of operating in the town centre. At that time, 48% of all car parking was vacant on a market day and 56% on a non-market day.