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Rue Neuve, the once beating heart of Brussels shopping, continues to struggle
Rue Neuve, once the thriving and bustling commercial heart of Brussels, is suffering from expensive rents and a dwindling of interest from consumers, reports Bruzz.
Where there used to be luxurious department stores full of shoppers and a vibrancy in the famous street courtesy of its neighbouring entertainment district, there are now shops and businesses struggling to attract customers.
The empty retail spaces, temporary outlet shops and 'for rent' signs offer a depressing atmosphere that's in stark contrast to the lively climate of the 1970s and 80s. Rue Neuve then boasted the Métropole, Brussels' largest cinema, and nightclubs and bars stretching from Place Charles Rogier at one end to Rue de Laeken at the other.
Empty stores or pop-up outlets
Now, the newly redesigned street is a completely different proposition. Nightlife is no longer to be found, and the existing retail spaces do not seem to be immediately popular either. Of the 92 shops in the street, 15 are empty, up for rent or accommodate a temporary tenant, often outlet stores or a pop-up store. Construction or refurbishment work is being carried out in another five buildings. This results in around 20% of commercial space on street without a classic tenant. The City 2 shopping centre at the end of the street, however, has barely any empty units inside.
What is also obvious is the departure of big-name brand stores from the street with clothing retailers making way for increasing numbers of fast-food outlets and shops selling trainers.
So, what's going on in the street that can traditionally charge the most expensive rents in the country? Quentin Huet from Shopera, an association uniting mainly large stores in the city centre, says much of the problem has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic. "It caused a real shock,” he says. “Normally, a rental price also reflects the business figure that you can realise in a certain place. Because there were far fewer customers, that was suddenly no longer the case and that has led to a period of tension between the tenants and owners in the street. Some have come to an agreement, others have left. But that period is now behind us. For the most part, the customers returned."
Less purchasing power due to energy crisis
Huet refers to recent figures from Hub.brussels, which show that almost as many people are walking through the street as before the crisis. "However, walkers are not necessarily customers,” he says. “Now we have other crises like the energy situation, which has led to people buying fewer non-essential products. Our barometer currently shows about 10% fewer sales than before Covid. That's not a dream scenario, but it's not a catastrophe either. Especially when you know that the tourists and many commuters are not really back yet."
Huet sounds optimistic, but that's his job as a representative of businesses in the area. Trade experts are more cautious.
"There's more going on here than corona," says Benjamin Wayens from the ULB who studies, among other things, Brussels trade. "The most important sector in such a shopping street is clothing, but it is precisely this that has been in a crisis for some time. You have the pressure of cheap fast fashion, such as Primark, and the online market that continues to gain in importance. In addition, many clothing stores have also discovered that you can sell well in cheaper locations that are not in the city centre. It is therefore logical that a store like H&M, which used to have up to three stores in the street, is going to move on.”
This shift from Rue Neuve has been exacerbated by development of the Bourse area and the pedestrianised Boulevard Anspach.
"You just can't stretch a shopping walking zone indefinitely," Wayens notes. "At the same time, it was always the case that the area towards Rogier had a harder time. City 2 functions there as a customer vacuum cleaner. And the side with City 2 and the Inno department store feels a bit like a blind façade. As a result, the rents have always been a bit lower in that part, so you sometimes see a different kind of business springing up than the typical clothing or shoe store."
Some rents still too high
Like Huet, the ULB professor sees that a lot revolves around rents. "The yield per square metre drops, then the rents have to go down at some point,” he says. “That would be a good thing, where a more diverse offer could arise. However, a few owners stick to their price, in the hope that everything will be like a few years ago. There are several issues at play here. Remember that the value of a building is also defined by the amount of rent you can ask for."
Gino Van Ossel, professor of retail at the De Vlerick Business School, is in agreement. "Quite a few owners don't want to lower their prices in the hope things improve, hence we see many temporary outlets and pop-ups, which is a way to buy time. But I do see those rents falling in the coming years. If only because teleworking is here to stay, and the now absent commuter often spent more than the locals.”
“Also, we must consider the competition at other locations, even within Brussels,” he adds. “Look at the Chaussée d'Ixelles, which has lower rents, but even overtook Rue Neuve in terms of visitors during corona. Or Docks, which is more accessible to many Flemish people than the city centre."
The profile of customers is also changing, and it is not only due to the health crisis. "I've been working in the street for 40 years," says one woman who runs a bag shop. "The traditional family businesses have given way to chain stores and the customers from outside Brussels are decreasing."
Potential shoppers no longer drive into centre
"Brussels is dead," says Frédéric Chladiuk who runs the Western store on Boulevard Adolphe Max, which runs parallel to Rue Neuve. "People from elsewhere don't come here anymore, I hear that again and again. They just don't come by car anymore. And soon the parking spaces in the street here will also be overhauled."
Shopera’s Quentin Huet hears the complaint that Rue Neuve is no longer accessible from outside Brussels, but disagrees. "The policy has been trying to discourage car travel to the centre for years, that also has an effect, yes. But you do get here very quickly. Via the Central Station, the North Station, by metro or if necessary, in one of the many car parks, along the inner ring or in the city centre."
Call for more events to attract shoppers from outside city
What Huet does have a problem with is the communication. "I don't question the mobility policy itself; you can't get to 5th Avenue in Manhattan by car either. But we need to explain to Belgians how to get to Brussels. This can be done through clear and large-scale communication, through deals with parking operators." In addition, Shopera hopes for more events that attract non-Brussels residents. "Winter Fun, the Carpet of Flowers or the Car-Free Sunday are good examples of this,” says Huet. “We need a city which is Instagramable."
Looking into the future, trade experts hope to see a revival on Rue Neuve but not in the form that we have been used to. "Rents will fall, so the current vacancy rate will not continue," predicts Van Ossel. "Furthermore, we are moving towards a more homogeneous supply that is rather in the low middle segment of the market, lower than in recent years. Finally, I think the current emphasis on fashion will diminish. I expect more shops that explicitly address the city dweller, such as a store with smaller furniture."
If it is up to Shopera, the most famous shopping street in the country must also be resuscitated outside of shopping hours. "Pedestrian zones must also live at night," says Quentin Huet. “We point out that rents will have to fall considerably before there's other cinemas or nightclubs. True, but more and more people live above the commercial spaces, just like those who will soon live above La Bourse. This leads to more residents who could use more entertainment options. There is room for that in the streets around Rue Neuve."
Whether Rue Neuve, the once beating heart of the city, will pulse again – only time will tell.