TOWN centres across the country are in crisis with 3,000 high street stores closing in the first half of this year.

There is no denying the fact big names are pulling out and shopping habits are changing.

Hardly a month goes by without news of another shop shutting or facing the threat of closure.

But is Colchester facing the same crisis? The overall picture is not clear, but statistics for Lion Walk shopping centre suggest Colchester is bucking the trend when it comes to footfall.

UK high street footfall has declined by 4.5 per cent year on year.

But for the first time this year Lion Walk has seen an increase of five per cent.

Lion Walk centre manager Martin Leatherdale puts the performance down to the start-up of a number of initiatives.

Coffee shop Muffin Break opened at the former HMV store at the start of the month and Martin said it was the best store opening the county has seen.

He said: “Not only was this the best store opening for the Essex-based franchisee, it was the best in the whole UK portfolio in terms of opening day sales.

“Customers have received this proposition extremely well. Encouragingly, this has not been to the detriment of other food and beverage propositions within Lion Walk, clearly showing the change in consumer habits to a now much more experiential and immersive experience.”

Filling empty units is an obvious way to increase footfall.

Across the UK, the proportion of all empty shops reached 10.3 per cent in July - its highest level since January 2015.

To continue to buck the trend Mr Leatherdale has pledged to fill all empty units in Red Lion Walk by Christmas.

He said: “With licences now being drawn up, this provisionally includes an independent chocolatier, an ice cream and coffee parlour, the up and running hairdressers Beaux Chevaux, the expansion of Dear Grace and support for charity organisations such as the Royal British Legion in the interim.”

Lion Walk staff are not the only ones trying to jazz up empty spaces.

Colchester’s Business Improvement District team plans to brighten up spaces with artwork and even use them as spaces for students to start up businesses.

With the empty shops being filled, the next step is to get people to visit them.

By hosting events Mr Leatherdale hopes to attract people of all ages to the town.

A student day festival is being held on October 12 to welcome university freshers and new sixth formers.

From noon until 5pm there will be live music, a virtual reality experience, games and discounts.

And in the world of retail, Christmas event plans cannot start early enough.

Martin has already organised Lion Walk’s light switch-on for November 27 and he hopes to tie in a military theme this year.

He said: “The switch-on will feature a choir of blind military veterans marching through the centre.

“They will march through Red Lion Yard to the United Reformed Church stage area, where they will sing and turn on the lights.

“We will also be joined by reindeer, live performing acts and fireworks.”

Another new feature this year will be a Bavarian market, music, children’s rides and food stalls.

Martin added: “We have also been liaising with the Co-op to smarten up the old Co-op building in Long Wyre Street and address the homeless issues to which they have been very responsive.”

The retail forecast may look gloomy for the rest of the UK, but for Colchester the future is looking bright.