The small town of Carmarthen is located inland from the southwest coast of Wales in the county of Carmarthenshire. This small town of around 15,000 people has a long history, emanating as a prominent Roman settlement on the Welsh peninsula some 2,000 years ago. Its importance has diminished in modern times. These days, one may not ordinarily pay much attention to a town of such stature. From a retail perspective, however, the town and the wider province of Carmarthenshire is particularly interesting. In Wales’ fourth most populous county, Carmarthen punches above its weight, despite being dwarfed in terms of its population compared with its sibling to the south, Llanelli, as Carmarthen remains the preeminent shopping location for the region. The pressing question here is how a town of 15,000 successfully markets itself as the prime retail destination in an area with a settlement thrice its size just 20 minutes to the south.
Much of conventional wisdom regarding the location decisions of retailers revolves around the concentration of populations within an area. Thus, a more densely populated area would likely be considered more attractive to a retailer, all things being equal. However, at first glance, this seems not to hold true for the region in question. When we compare these two towns’ retail environments, the difference is stark. One may consider that Carmarthen has, relative to its population size, a larger retail sphere than Llanelli; in fact, the retail environment is absolutely larger and considerably so.
A good means for comparison of retail environments within the towns would be their provision of shopping centres. In Llanelli, the East Gate and St. Elli Centre are the two primary shopping destinations within the town. The East Gate, marketed as a leisure park, has a small retail offering with shops such as Ladbrokes, Lextan and Spar along with a Travelodge and Odeon cinema. The St. Elli Centre is the town’s main shopping centre with a large ASDA and a convenience based retail offering with retailers such as Poundland and Wilko. The town of Carmarthen has a considerable shopping centre presence despite its size. Merlin’s walk and St. Catherine’s Walk shopping centres retain some serious retail giants such as Debenhams, H&M, Lush, Topshop and Vue Cinemas together forming a much more comparison-based retail mix. Total retail space in the St. Elli Centre and East Gate (excluding office and hotel space) comes to around 230,000 square feet; Carmarthen’s two largest centres combine to a total over 325,000 square feet in retail accommodation.
Thus, we can definitively assert that this evidence suggests Carmarthen is a more favorable environment for retailers than its local rival Llanelli given that Carmarthen’s retail offering is far more comprehensive, with a wider choice of retailers from different market segments, rather than a primarily convenience-based retail provision. The question remains, why is this the case?
Looking towards town catchments may provide the first clue as to why this situation has come to pass. Llanelli is located mid-way between Carmarthen and Swansea and has a seemingly limited catchment potential. This position between these two areas may well have contributed to its position as being a secondary retail destination. The city of Swansea has a large residential population, 250,000, at around 8% of the total population of Wales making it a particularly attractive location for both shoppers and retailers. Llanelli lies a mere 20 minutes west across the River Loughor, thus, Swansea is an attractive retail destination for Llanelli residents to carry out their comparison-based shopping. Llanelli, for this reason, lacks the means to compete with Swansea’s more comprehensive retail offering as its population and level of wealth are not sufficient to justify a larger retail offering. Carmarthen’s success can at least partially be attributed to its geographic positioning. Carmarthen has a wide catchment area as the town is the largest settlement in far southwestern Wales; this makes the town a confluence point for communities to the west as the most accessible retail centre for these more rural areas.
A possible determinant for the size and scope of a retail sphere could be that of local average incomes and the urbanization rate. Demand for retail goods varies with disposable income, thus it follows that a higher disposable income results in a greater demands for retail space in the locale.
Within this graphic, Carmarthen North and South are denoted by 7 and 8 respectively and Llanelli lies at the southernmost point of Carmarthenshire. The median incomes in the south of Carmarthenshire and the areas surrounding Llanelli are among the lowest in the county. Carmarthen, despite most of it falling into the £20,000-25,000 bracket, is surrounded by higher income areas which lie to the north and west of the town, meaning that their nearest town, or at least the one that is easiest to access, is Carmarthen. While the town of Carmarthen itself is relatively small, at 15,000 people, the region of Carmarthenshire is relatively populous for Wales, with 185,000 inhabitants in total with most of its regional wealth centered around Carmarthen.
Carmarthen may well have become the most important retail location in the shire due to this local concentration of wealth. Thus, it could be asserted that the area’s success is due to a set of circumstances among which both disposable income and proximity (catchment) are most important, and not necessarily the strict local concentration of the population. Research from the Wales Rural Observatory finds there has been an increase in the residential population in rural Wales despite a decline in the natural population rate (i.e. births minus death without migration) to just under 20,000 between 1991 and 2001. The publication also hints that a large proportion of counter-urbanisation is fueled by the migration of ‘wealthy fractions of the service and professional class’ to rural areas. The above graphic may well support this consideration as the surrounding rural communities of Carmarthen have higher wealth concentrations. Further, Carmarthen’s position at the focal point of three arterial roads in the shire makes it a natural point for agglomeration of retailers to service these wealthier rural communities.
The key factors leading to Carmarthen’s position as the primary retail destination in Carmarthenshire are not incompatible with the current understanding of what makes a town attractive to retailers. Yes, it may well be the case that Carmarthen is a much smaller town than its sister to the south and this initially leads one to believe the town an outlier, an exception to the rules of retail. After closer inspection, however, one may well consider this to be a good example of where the conventional wisdom surrounding locational decisions for retailers holds true. Quoted town populations are fairly arbitrary, often politically based and can belie the true importance of a town. In an area of the UK which is far less urbanised than average, what might first seem like a small town has much greater significance to a large rural population. Looking towards the kind of consumers which live locally too, they tend to be wealthier and older households making them attractive targets for retailers as a result of their higher propensity to consume. Carmarthen’s success has also been helped, at least to some degree, by Swansea’s sprawling catchment. The larger city of Swansea located some 15 miles from Llanelli has helped contain the towns’ retail expansion. Indeed, there is some convenience provision in the form of the St. Elli Centre, which caters for local residents’ daily needs; however, the town’s easy access and proximity to Swansea has prevented it from reaching its potential as a retail location, paving the way for Carmarthen to become the foremost shopping destination in west-southwest Wales.
By Alasdair Pocock, Retail Research Analyst at Bayfield Training
1. Wales Rural Observatory (Research Report No. 14)
3. Completely Retail