A mixed bag from our markets!

Markets have long been at the centre of East Anglian life. But how are they faring against competition from supermarkets and the rise of internet shopping? AURA SABADUS investigates.

Markets have long been at the centre of East Anglian life. But how are they faring against competition from supermarkets and the rise of internet shopping? AURA SABADUS investigates.

It's market day and business is brisk - with chit-chat and gossip traded as quickly as fruit and veg.

Markets have been the beating heart of East Anglian towns for centuries.

But today they face competition from out-of-town supermarkets, the trend of shoppers paying by card not cash and, most recently of all, the advent of the internet and online retailers.

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Facing challenges on all sides, you would be forgiven for thinking the days of the traditional market stall were coming to an end.

But a Times investigation has revealed more of a mixed picture across its patch.

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We asked authorities and stallholders across Norfolk whether or not their markets had grown or shrunk in the last five years.

Traders in Watton together with Downham Market, Hunstanton and Wymondham insisted business was “thriving” and “better than ever before.”

In Fakenham, traders said they were holding their own against competition from rival stores.

But the investigation found that times have been tougher for markets in Norfolk's bigger towns of late.

Markets in Thetford and Swaffham together with King's Lynn, Yarmouth and Dereham have seen a sharp drop in their number of stalls over the last five years.

But the hardest-hit were Cromer and Stalham, where competition from supermarkets has been fierce.

Their number of stalls has more than halved since 2003.

“I am convinced the success of a market depends on good husbandry,” said Graham Wilson, chief executive of the National Association of British Market Authorities. “Clearly when you have a smaller market which can be established very quickly and tends to be more susceptible to flexibility in change, location or customer needs, then that market is thriving. Some town centres respond better than others. Where you find that there is a traditional market hall in need of investment, perhaps in need of a bit of review work, yet a problem is there,” he added.

The investigation - which did not look at the monthly farmers' markets - found that Hunstanton had 16 stalls on Wednesdays and 23 stalls on Sundays five years ago. Now, the figures have increased by almost a fifth, to 20 stalls on Wednesdays and 25 on Sundays.

Although Watton, Downham Market and Wymondham could not provide figures for 2003, town clerks in the three areas insisted that their markets are “thriving,” as there are at least 10 traders on their waiting lists every week.

Watton town clerk Jacqui Seal said the authority has to turn away on average 15 traders as there are only 15 stalls for the Wednesday market. This, she insisted, has never happened before.

Meanwhile there are up to 30 traders on Wymondham's waiting list, hoping to snap up one of the 12 stalls available on Fridays - the town's traditional market day.

But King's Lynn, Dereham or Yarmouth have lost up to a third of their capacity over the last five years.

Dereham, with its traditional Tuesdays and Friday markets, has also seen a sharp decrease from 40 to 25 stalls on Fridays since 2003. The town council blames the decrease on a change in the market's location from the town centre to Cowper Road. With nine stalls, the Tuesday market, situated in the Market Square, remains unchanged.

Swaffham's Saturday market has dropped from 75 to 60 stalls over the last five years.

But the hardest-hit is Stalham market, where the number of stalls on Tuesdays dropped from 40 to six since 2003.

Keith Johnson, markets manager at Norfolk County Services said fierce competition from supermarkets and internet sales have taken a heavy toll on places such as Stalham, Sheringham and Cromer.

“It is a fact of life that the younger housewife doesn't have the time to do the shopping in the market. Things are now changing fast,” he said.

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