As Sheffield’s Moor Market nears its 18-month anniversary, manager Andy Ward is candid about the challenges the venture faces.
The number of visitors is down, 47 stalls are currently empty and attempts to extend opening hours were not received well by either customers or traders.
So Mr Ward, the city council’s head of markets, is going back to the drawing board amid efforts to widen the Moor Market’s appeal with shoppers, and boost footfall while planned developments nearby - including a new cinema and shops, as well as the long-awaited New Retail Quarter - gather pace.
“We’re going to have a reassessment to see if we can get a different demographic in, but also to see if we can get a different trader as well,” he said.
“But if people were expecting a complete step change when we opened, with everything new, that was never going to be the case.”
A quarter of the market’s stalls are currently empty, after it opened in November 2013 at 96 per cent occupancy.
“We’re currently averaging 53,000 visitors every week. Last year it averaged 58,000 a week, so it’s dropped even from last year,” said Mr Ward.
“We’re bringing 90 to 95 per cent of the people that are out there on The Moor, so we couldn’t really do much better than that. We’ve had a number of casualties on the non-food side, but the food side seems to be holding up.”
He added: “I’ve heard a lot of people complain that The Moor is too far away - bearing in mind Castle Market used to serve the north of the city.
“We know there are a couple of key bus services that don’t come down here. There was a lot of talk when the Freebee bus stopped about the effect it would have, but if you look at the footfall, it didn’t budge.
“Nobody could have predicted that footfall was going to fall off a cliff. When we opened it was like a football match on day one, the market was nearly bursting at the seams, and that continued more or less until Christmas.
“Come January the footfall halved overnight down to around 50,000. That did improve, and it topped 60,000 at points last year.”
Mr Ward said the ambition to attract shoppers from the south west of the city still exists - and that, at first, some success was gained with this aim.
“During the initial few weeks that demographic would use the market, but I don’t really know what they were expecting.
“We had a lot of high-quality traders who you would have thought ideal, like Barra Organics, who have since opened a shop elsewhere.
“Whether the offer was right in the first place is debatable, but we’ve still got some fantastic traders.”
A market research study last year produced ‘confusing’ results, said Mr Ward, so the survey will be run again next month in the hope of finding clearer answers.
Businesses at other markets - including Barnsley and Doncaster - are being approached to see if they want to expand into Sheffield, parking initiatives have been launched and rent has been ‘realigned’ - meaning traders are paying 70 per cent of the full rental charge originally proposed.
Later opening hours are currently off the agenda, however.
“The busiest day by far is Saturday, but if you come in here at half past four or five o’clock on a weekday, there are not a lot of people about,” said Mr Ward.
“We did try opening up to six o’clock at Christmas, and it was very poorly supported by the public, and within a few nights of opening the traders refused to open as well.
“We opened later - and nobody came.”
Earlier this year plans were mooted for a ‘trader’s co-operative’ to run the market, but the idea did not come to fruition, Mr Ward said.
“Trying to run retail within the structures of a council is very difficult. We can’t react quickly enough because we’re spending public money and the bureaucracy that goes with that, and we’re very slow to adapt to trends.
“I think it would do better as an arm’s length company or as part of a private operator. Up and down the country there are next to zero market halls that are run by anybody other than councils. We’re a complex beast. There is a lot happening on The Moor, but it can’t happen quickly enough. I think the future looks OK - it’s what we do in the interim that is the challenge.”