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The Community Value of Bury's World Famous Market

Written by Paul Waley


How can one define the particular charm of Bury market? Is it the serendipity of finding the unexpected on the next stall but one, down the second row on the left? Is it that strange sense of security that tells you you can get lost and still be perfectly safe? Is it the impression the market conveys of timelessness? It surely is all these things and much more, but equally surely it is very hard to pin down exactly what makes Bury’s such a wonderful market. Like all markets, however, Bury Market faces uncertain times given the changing retail environment, but it does so in a much better condition to survive and prosper than almost any other market in the country.

Bury Market is one of the three case studies of our research project, Markets4People, into the community value of markets. We chose it because of its strong reputation, its widespread popularity and its sound management. In 2019 Bury Market won NABMA's award for Britain's Favourite Market (as it had done in 2015), and it has won numerous other awards. Our research involved a questionnaire survey of nearly 500 market users on both the three full market days and also on non-full market days. This was supported by two focus group meetings and interviews with market managers, traders, councillors and council officers.

Our headline findings were nearly all positive. Footfall is holding up remarkably well; very few of the 365 stalls are empty (and these mainly due to refurbishment work); and the number of coach visitors continues to grow. The market has a very loyal customer base -- a little more than half have been coming regularly over the last 20 years, while over 60% visit at least once a week.

The value of Bury Market to the local community came through strongly, evidenced by its attractiveness to those on lower incomes, particularly those living in deprived neighbourhoods, and the elderly, especially those living on their own. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, given its reputation as a popular coach destination for shoppers from across the region and beyond, we found that only 4% of visitors arrive by coach. While it appears that coach visitors spend generously in the market and patronise the cafés in numbers, we believe it is important to recognise that the market’s principal customer base remains, overwhelmingly, the local community.

Bury Market gives every appearance of being a bustling, colourful and contented place. This is supported by the very high satisfaction ratings that customers exhibit for the quality of the food and drink they buy there. Almost all (98%) of market users strongly agree or agree that the market provides access to affordable, quality fresh food. The market gains much of its appeal from the range of products for sale on its stalls. Visitors buy clothing, footwear, books, flowers, pet supplies and much else besides at the market, and they are happy with the quality of what they buy. Again, nearly all of them (97 percent) strongly agree or agree that the market provides access to a range of other affordable, quality goods and services. That customers value the produce (and atmosphere) of Bury Market is borne out by our finding that, on average, market users travel further to reach the market than their local supermarket.

One of our most significant findings was that just about all market users feel safe (99%) and welcome (98%) at the market, and feel that they belong there (92%). The market is an important social hub, a place where market users meet friends and interact socially with other shoppers and with stall holders. Indeed, Bury Market is significantly more important to market users than other community facilities such as the library or park, and somewhat more important than other retail and food outlets. Market users, in other words, overwhelmingly (99%) agree that the market is an important part of local identity.

While this did not issue strongly from our survey, it is nonetheless clear that some long-awaited improvements are needed for the market’s infrastructure. Some, such as refurbished toilets, have long been in the pipeline. Others -- for example, improved signage -- are obvious, given that currently it is not even clear how to walk from the nearby tram station to the market, but these are issues that are easily resolvable.

From the start of our research, we were aware that Bury Market is well managed. The market manager is a daily presence in the market (something that cannot be said for all markets), and the extent of his concern for the well-being of the market is evident to all. He is supported by a hard-working team that includes an apprentice who has been responsible for upgrading the market’s presence on the web and on social media. Inevitably, perhaps, in a market of 365 stalls, not everyone is happy. A very small but vociferous group of stall holders have been airing their disquiet, in particular about Bury Council’s policy and plans for the market. Their demands include rent reductions and free parking.

Bury Council has long recognized the importance of the market to the town, its identity and its appeal. Apart from anything else, the market has been turning over to the council surpluses of over £1 million in recent years while receiving an annual maintenance budget of about one-tenth of that figure. The council would like in future to orchestrate a redesign of the centre of town. The question, then, is what place the market would hold in this vision. Many would, no doubt, support an attempt to make the market more visible and perhaps more flexible too, so that it is no longer hidden away and constrained in its offering. At the same time, it is to be hoped that the council recognize that the market should be cherished for what it is today and not preened and polished to become something different tomorrow. They must beware in case they, in the words of a council officer, kill the goose that laid the gold egg.

Our recent presentation of research findings on Bury Market can be viewed in full here.