Brussels independent traders suffering as city centre changes

Brussels independent traders suffering as city centre changes
Saint Catherine quarter. Credit: Visit Brussels

Independent fashion boutiques and speciality stores in the centre of Brussels are struggling to stay afloat during these difficult times. Some stop, others soldier on, and a few are positive and optimistic in spite of everything.

After making barely €200 in one week, stylist Valérie Berckmans made the decision in mid-September to close her shop in Rue van Artevelde after sixteen years. When she shuts up shop in January, the last fashion designer will have disappeared from the Dansaert district.

"The biggest problem is that we have to play on the same playground as the big chains,” she said. “They produce cheaply in countries such as Bangladesh, have large margins and can pay all the costs. But if, like me, you produce locally and use sustainable materials, then your margins are much smaller. Yet you have the same costs, you pay the same social contributions and other contributions."

A series of unfortunate events

In recent years, a series of circumstances have occurred that have negatively affected sales. "Since the pedestrian zone was established, the reputation of the city has deteriorated, people think they can't get here by car anymore. Due to the Covid-19 crisis, many people then started teleworking. I still don't see some of them. The culture of dressing up has also changed since the pandemic; women are working in jogging suits at their computers."

"And then came the war, inflation and the energy crisis," she continued. "People are afraid and buy less or buy second-hand. At the same time, my production costs have risen sharply. My seamstress costs me 30% more, the price of the fabrics has increased by 40% and the electricity bill has increased four-fold."

The recent Good Move circulation plan, intended to make the city centre car-free, was the straw that broke the camel's back at Berckmans. "I see even fewer customers and because all the remaining traffic now drives through my street, it is much busier, and I am in exhaust fumes all day. I think I gambled wrongly at the time by buying a property on this street. It seemed to be the place to be in 2006, around the corner from the Rue Antoine Dansaert."

Traffic kills footfall

Just like in the Rue van Artevelde, the traffic in the Rue Antoine Dansaert has increased considerably since the circulation plan. Quiet strolling is no longer an option. Cars and buses pass by and during rush hour traffic is regularly at a standstill.

Nevertheless, the street seems to hold its own as a 'better' shopping street, although there have been changes in the past five years. Some businesses have already left, causing some vacancies.

So, do independent niche businesses still have a future in the city centre? The picture remains unclear. "Currently, there are businesses that are bleeding and others that continue to reach their clients," said Anton Van Assche of business organisation Unizo.

Brussels is still accessible

Van Assche still believes that Brussels as a shopping city has potential. "But as a government you can't rest on your laurels because a company always looks at where it can do business best. If that is not in the centre of Brussels, then it may be in Uccle, in Mechelen or even further."

"The independent niche businesses are not there to reinforce the character of the city, they are there to make a living. If politicians want them to stay, they must make efforts so that customers come and it can be profitable. You can therefore ask the question of whether the circulation plan should be introduced at a time when the traders are already suffering, and the inner ring is gridlocked."

Van Assche believes that the city does indeed try to support the merchants with the distribution of gift vouchers and the mapping out of wellness and other discovery routes. Yet this vision must spread beyond the city: "Outside Brussels, there is mainly the perception that the city is not accessible. The city and the Region must work together on a better image, namely that Brussels is a fun city to explore."

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