TO SAY 2020 has been a challenging year would be a criminal understatement.

Alongside its direct and devastating health impacts, the coronavirus crisis has had a wide range of implications across issues such as mental wellbeing and food poverty.

One of the key areas to have been cast into the pandemic’s far-reaching shadow is retail.

Non-essential shops have been forced to close on two separate occasions so far this year, under national lockdowns introduced by the government to curb rising coronavirus infection rates.

As a result, many have had to rely on government grants and schemes to survive.

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The second lockdown in particular, in place between November 5 and December 2, came at a terrible time for bricks-and-mortar retail.

With Christmas fast-approaching, customers were forced to look online in their hunt to find gifts for friends and family.

So, at the end of this difficult year, how do the streets of Brighton compare with how they looked last winter?

Last October, The Argus visited The Lanes, Western Road, Duke Street, London Road and Kensington Gardens to see how many empty sites there were in each of the key shopping streets.

Revisiting each area last week, some of the results were quite surprising.

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There were a concerning 14 empty retail units in The Lanes, seen by many in the jewel in Brighton’s crown and a first stop for many visitors to the city.

Among them, chocolate shop Choccywoccydoodah remained barren, more than 18 months on from the institution’s shock closure.

In both London Road and Duke Street, however, the number of empty retail spaces had fallen since late 2019.

The London Road total had dropped from 13 to eight, while the Duke Street figure fell from ten to four.

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But, compared to the year before, there appeared to be a heavier emphasis on food stores rather than shops selling non-edible items.

In both streets, there were a series of new patisseries, bakeries, food markets, chocolate shops and takeaways.

For example, the family-run Artisan Deli Market in Duke Street which opened in July shortly after the first lockdown measures were eased.

However, in London Road, the former Poundstretcher and Bamboo House sites were some of several units to remain empty since our 2019 count.

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Much of the rest of the street’s retail space was taken by charity shops (ten), betting shops (four) and pawn shops (three).

In Kensington Gardens there were two closed stores, down from three the previous year.

The vacant former Brighton Books site has now been reimagined by handmade clothing company Lucy and Yak.

However, in Western Road, the number of empty sites had risen from 13 to 15, with the large Argos store being the latest casualty.

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Owners Sainsbury’s confirmed the permanent closure of the site to The Argus last week, sharing plans to amalgamate hundreds of the stores into its UK supermarkets over the next few years.

Set just back from the road, facing out from the Churchill Square shopping centre, there is also a large Topshop and Topman store, owned by the struggling Arcadia group.

A huge JD Sports opened next door in October, replacing Arcadia-owned Burton and Dorothy Perkins which closed a year before.

The sports retailer moved from a smaller site on the corner of Churchill Square, which remains empty.

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Walking towards Hove, buildings which once housed newsagents, clothes stores and more now have their doors boarded up and their windows blocked by swirls of grey paint.

But, again, some formerly empty sites have been reimagined this year. A bank which was empty for years at 79 Western Road was bustling when The Argus walked past.

It has been given a new lease of life as a coffee house by Greek chain Mikel.

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And an HMV store which had become a canvas for graffiti scrawls is now unrecognisable, with new owners Energie Fitness preparing to open soon.

Brighton and Hove City Council said it had been “an incredibly difficult year in an already challenging climate for retail”.

It is offering business grants of up to £3,000 for businesses forced to close down during lockdown, and is allowing shops to stay open for longer during the festive period in an attempt to support the city’s retailers and allow for a safe return to stores for shoppers.

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A council spokeswoman said: “In Brighton and Hove we’re working closely with our partners in retail and business to do what we can to support our local high streets.

“During this exceptional festive season we’re allowing retailers to open for longer to support a safe return to the high street. We’ve also commissioned the BID to identify suitable unused spaces to offer them as pop-up shops and commissioned Brighton Chamber to deliver the Business Reset Restart Programme to help businesses adapt during the pandemic.

“Any businesses that were forced to close during the lockdown period, can apply for business grants of up to £3,000 on our website.

“We’ve also got the ‘From Brighton with Love’ programme of support available to help businesses prepare for a post Brexit world.

“In the longer term, the retail sector is a big focus in the next part of our City Plan. This includes the council helping to fund the renewal and expansion of the Brilliant Brighton BID.”