Greedy landlords bullying toy shop out of St Albans shopping centre

AN INDEPENDENT toy shop in a St Albans shopping centre believes it is being bullied out of business by its landlords.

Little Wonders has been in the Maltings shopping centre for the past eight years and has built up a large number of loyal customers.

But the owners of the shopping centre have now given Little Wonders just 30 days to vacate the shop – with no offer of relocation or help to find alternative premises.

The news came out of the blue to co-owner Elena Ripoll who has been told another retailer is waiting in the wings for the shop prepared to pay a much higher rent. She believes it must be another multiple who wants to move in there.

For the past two years of recession, Little Wonders had negotiated a lower rent which Elena described as “still exceptionally high” and she had hoped to renegotiate a new lease which was beneficial to all parties when she learned that the axe was about to fall.

Elena said this week: “I have said to the landlords that I recognise it’s a business decision but I would need longer than 30 days notice to raise the funds to relocate.”

She has tried to arrange meetings with the landlords – Boultbee, a massive European-wide commercial property company whose name she only learned on Tuesday – and she has asked the company’s agents EFM Management if there is anywhere else Little Wonders could relocate to in the Maltings but has been told no.

Most Read

Elena and partner Andy have always paid their rent – Little Wonders has paid �90,000 in the last two years alone – but she understands the prospective tenants would be prepared to pay �56,000 annually.

It is the lack of help and support to relocate which has upset her most – particularly as her landlords had been faceless until she discovered who they were this week.

Landlords around St Albans have offered shop space but with most stores making a loss in the first half of the year and a profit in the second, Little Wonders is not in a position to pay to have a new shop fitted out elsewhere.

Elena maintains that the toy and sports shop Riders in Chequer Street found itself in the same position before it was forced to close down several years ago: “They are putting pressure on independent shops – it is real bullying.

“I think our turnover is exceptional compared with the big companies out there. We are taking roughly the same money as Imaginarium.”

Not only do Elena and Andy face losing the shop – the only remaining Little Wonders store after four were set up originally – but with a young daughter and a mortgage, they face losing their home as well.

Customers are very upset at the prospect of losing Little Wonders – some have burst into tears, Elena said – and she has a notice up in the window explaining the situation and set up a petition asking for support.

She added: “We have had shops in quite a few towns and St Albans stands out remarkably as having the highest level of loyal customers.”

No-one from EFM or the Maltings management was available for comment yesterday.