Why are French city centres attracting fewer visitors?

Experts say there are many factors at play - notably competition from large shops on city outskirts that have more parking spaces - which are leaving an increasing number of vacant commercial properties in city centres.

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The number of vacant commercial properties in French city centres is rising, according to figures from specialist shop federation Procos (Fédération pour la Promotion du Commerce Spécialisé).

The figures show that 7% of commercial properties in France were vacant in 2012. This rose to 12% in 2018. In medium-sized cities specifically, around 15% of commercial properties are vacant.

Additionally, the number of clients entering city centre shops has gone down by more than 5% each year for the past five years.

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Ease of shopping on city outskirts one factor

Medium-sized cities have struggled to attract visitors as over the past 30 years, commercial development has been focused on areas on the city outskirts. These external shopping zones often have large car parks with many parking spaces, and tend to attract dynamic lifestyle brands. Meanwhile, shops in city centres are often housed in older buildings that may have structural difficulties.

However, external shopping zones are only one factor in the decline of France’s town centres.

Expert David Lestoux from agency Lestoux et Associés sees this increase in visitors to external shopping areas as indicative of a more general shift away from town centres.

He told news source Le Figaro: “What is making town centres suffer is simply the fact that people don’t live there anymore. Numerous activities have progressively moved towards the outskirts: shops, but also housing, schools and non-commercial activities, like doctors’ surgeries.”

Government measures to help town centres

At the end of 2017, the French government launched the “Action Coeur de Ville” (Action Town Centre) program to help turn things around.

€5 billion was allocated to 222 communes to help make town centres more attractive to visitors, via measures such as improving public transport, renovating buildings, improving heritage sites.

Many cities have already taken advantage of the scheme in different ways. Strasbourg (Grand Est) has started reintroducing doctors’ surgeries to its town centre, while Compiègne (Oise, Hautes-de-France) and Nantes (Pays de la Loire) have brought in popular retailers such as H&M and Uniqlo.

According to Procos, officials have realised they need to “make large surfaces available to appeal to attractive retailers and stop them opening up in the outskirts instead”.

Increased support after Covid-19 crisis

More recently, the government has announced it will buy vacant commercial properties, which will then be renovated and rented at a low price.

This comes as part of a series of measures announced on Monday, June 29, which will make €900 million available to small independent shops to help them recover after the Covid-19 lockdown. Individual shops may be eligible to access €8,000 through the scheme.

Additionally, funds have been made available for up to 6,000 vacant commercial premises that are set to be renovated and rented at a low price.

However, Mr Lestoux believes these measures alone will not save shops in town centres. He said: “It comes back to shop owners to innovate to attract customers, who are shopping more and more online. They need to change their hours and offer more home delivery or click and collect.

“On this side of things, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

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