As Retailer of the Year holds its official launch, we look at what St Albans has to offer shoppers and how local retailers can survive these difficult economic times.

With its high proportion of independent shops, a thriving market and historic surroundings, St Albans city centre is an attractive place to shop.

But, as with other towns and cities up and down the country, the tough economic climate has introduced an atmosphere of uncertainty. Familiar shops such as Past Times and Riders Toys have closed.

However, figures complied by St Albans District Council reveal there is reason to remain optimistic. While the data shows eight stores within the city centre became newly vacant between October 2011 and December 2011, within this time nine stores became occupied, including one which re-opened. Three stores had a change of retailer without falling vacant in-between.

Alastair Woodgate, chairman of St Albans Retail Forum, highlighted the need for residents to "fly the flag" and celebrate the "unique" shopping experience St Albans has to offer.

He said: "Retailing is dynamic, there will always be openings and closures. But St Albans is a unique shopping destination with lots to offer that other areas don't. That's what people should be shouting about.

"While I am very aware of the difficulties traders are facing at the moment we must always be willing to celebrate we have got."

Research by the Local Data Company reported in February this year that St Albans had the lowest shop vacancy rate in the UK for 2011 of 8.2 per cent, compared with a UK average of 14.3 per cent.

Recently, famous names such as the Cath Kidston store and Jamie's Italian have opened in the city centre, with plans in the pipeline for a Raymond Blanc restaurant to occupy two vacant units in Verulam Road.

Focusing on what independent traders can do to fight through the recession St Albans-based retail expert Clare Rayner suggested they take at look at their day "with a customer's eyes". She said the business owner should consider if their offers, promotions, events and communications is relevant to their target audience.

With high business rates being one of the biggest overheads for a retailer, Clare said more than often they can take their frustrations out on the council because it collects the rates, but she said it is important to remember they do not set the rates and are also experiencing major budget cuts.

She added that councils can help with issues such as parking, cleanliness and security and St Albans has higher parking charges, which can be given as a reason for low footfall in town centres.

Overall Clare highlighted what is being planned to give local businesses a boost by taking advantage of the London 2012 Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee.

The St Albans Retail Forum, made up of district and county councillors and the chamber of commerce, has provided retailers with a voice.

It has introduced free parking in the north of St Peters Street to help traders struggling with low footfall, ran late night shopping in the run up to Christmas 2011 and is now looking into better signs and transport links to attract more visitors.