Business

Traders Of The Lost Art

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“Indie! Indie!” has been the rallying cry for the heroes of the high street. But is the art of personal service set to become a relic of the past, entombed forever by recession? Is the unique character of the independent retailer destined to be crushed by the unstoppable boulder of the big brands? Not if Rachel Parkin and the new Local Indie Retailers group have their way

How and why did this initiative come about?

The state of the high street is currently big news and crises of confidence such as #horsegate have shifted attention onto the smaller players on our city streets. So while we’re currently big news, for those of us who have been trading on the high street for some time, it has become more than clear that something has to be done. Upward only rent reviews, sky high parking charges and ridiculous business rates along with a deep recession have all combined to create one of the most challenging times for retail that most of us can remember. So that’s the why, the how is a little more esoteric…
The how all began with twitter. At Reba we use twitter to talk to our customers and other local businesses – increasingly we’ve been talking to other local independent retailers on it. Having a relationship of some kind via twitter made it much easier to approach the first indie retailers which is really how it all began.

As part of the back story, I wrote a website called www.retailrehab.co.uk back in 2009 as the recession was just beginning. It was and still is a free website with everything that we’d learned about retail in the 15 years that we’d been trading. I have a keen interest in the high street and the health or otherwise of it, as its integral to the health of our city. It’s a source of civic pride (or otherwise) and the centre for our community – money spent in the local independent retailers circulates in our local economy far more times than money spent with a multiple retailer, and therefore strengthens our local economy which is vital for our growth and survival.

Why do independents need to collaborate? What’s to be gained?

Having had my shop for 18 years now I think I’d have to say that these are new times! The city centre needs a mix of shops for it to work and for it to be attractive to shoppers. The days of the butcher, baker and candlestick maker may be over, but we need a healthy mix to make the trip into town interesting and worth the time invested in it. I believe that Independents need to collaborate to help each other. We don’t have huge budgets and resources for advertising and promotion, but we do need to raise our profile and let people know that we are here, and what we have to offer. Collaboration should allow us to have a voice when dealing with the local council for example – 20 stores together are more powerful than each individual store owner.

Its early days yet, but I would assume that we can all benefit from sharing knowledge, skillsets, experience and a sense of community. I can only speak for myself here, but I find it really nice to go into a store and be greeted by name, or that someone knows my coffee order because they’ve taken the time to talk to me. Obviously that’s on a micro level, but on a macro level, having a voice, a focus and a plan for the city, that we want to create, promote and be a part of, has to be a positive thing.

What has been the response so far?

The response so far has been overwhelming! I think it helped that we are endeavouring to do something positive for the city – this isn’t just griping about the business rates. We want to create applications and things of real value for and for visitors to the city. We have had incredible levels of support from all of the local media as well as local organisations such as Growborough, Opportunity Peterborough and the Council.

IS THERE A WIDE RANGE OF RETAILERS GETTING ON BOARD?

The short answer is yes! We have a wide mix of retailers, from coffee shops, sweet shops, cosmetics, boutiques, accessories, niche food retailers, tea shops, shoe shops, hairdressers and of course its early days yet, we need to spread the news…

HOW WAS THE FIRST MEETING? DID NEW ISSUES RISE OUT OF IT?

The first meeting was very informal, we meet in a local indie coffee shop and it was a case of exploring a very rough agenda to see if we were in agreement. I’d produced a basic poster for a campaign and through a lot of discussion we evaluated the message of the poster, we wanted to incorporate all the elements that we thought were the most important for the consumers and for us. To be honest, it wasn’t so much that there were new issues, it was more a case that there were so many similarities between our disparate businesses. We were all dealing with similar concerns and it was really unusual to be able to discuss them with each other. One thing about Independent retail is that it is by its very nature a very isolated path, so the chance to discuss concerns about the city centre that we were all having was very useful.

IS THIS ABOUT RAISING AWARENESS, OR POOLING RESOURCES, OR SOMETHING MORE THAN THAT?

Its about all of that and much more. We have a three phase plan. Initially we need to raise awareness – it’s a perfect time to do that, the public’s confidence has been tested recently. Reports like the Portas report are still making the news and while we all accept that there has to be an evolution of the high street, we think that there should be some kind of vision for this. Through my column in the Evening Telegraph I’ve said many times that the city centre is not a cash cow, its not the gift that keeps on giving! There has to be real investment into it – that’s into the infrastructure, the look of the city centre and the amenities.

At the very base level we can’t continue to be charged rents on a pre-recession rate for a post- recession footfall – it doesn’t make any sense. Phase two of our charter is to create an indie map of the city centre, to promote the independent retailers that bring a little bit of fun and pazazz to our community – the indie coffee shops that serve great coffee (and pay taxes) the local butchers that don’t allow horses into the food chain, the local boutiques that have something different so we don’t all look the same, and the niche supermarkets that get us thinking about what we’re actually eating.
The third phase relates to the city itself and the changes that we believe will help the city to grow. The vision for the city if you like… This includes attracting visitors into the city and giving them enough things to do that they will stay for a reasonable amount of time.

DO DIFFERENT INDIES HAVE DIFFERENT NEEDS, OR IS THIS ALL ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE IN COMMON?

Obviously each business is different, their supply chains are different , their ethos and style will be different – we can’t compare a flower shop to a tea shop for instance – but what we have in common is actually more relevant than what we don’t. What we have in common is that we’re all hard workers, who want more than anything for our businesses to be successful – not simply because of the money, although money is a signpost that you’re doing things right – its more a case of a vision. You don’t become an independent retailer if you follow the crowd, don’t like working things out for yourself or need to be acknowledged every 15 minutes. What we do have in common is that we’re all being affected by factors that are outside of our locus of control, they may be being decided at council level or even governmental level but together we have a voice – independently we’d just be perceived as moaning. Some of us have been in retail for decades and some of us are relatively new, but the aims are all the same, to be successful, employ local people and contribute to our community.

WHAT’S THE ULTIMATE AIM?

To raise the profile for independent retailers in the city and to have a voice and credibility to talk to the council about the vision for the city. We have to have a sufficient membership in order to make this credible, but that’s what we’re working on right now. Watch this space!

WHAT CAN ANYONE READING THIS DO TO HELP IF THEY’RE A) AN INDEPENDENT STORE OR B) A CUSTOMER WHO WANTS TO SUPPORT THEM?

If you’re an independent store, then please get in touch and we’ll be more than happy to talk to you. Our campaign will go live in the next three to four weeks so please get in touch to be part of it.
If you’re a consumer who wants to vote with your feet, then please choose independent retailers if you have a choice. We are not advocating the boycotting of multiples or the end of internet shopping, but being conscious about your purchases is the only way to ensure the future of the high street and a way of life that we’ve all grown up with.

Rachel Parkin – Reba Boutique

1 Cathedral Square PE1 1XH

https://www.rebaboutique.co.uk

email:

twitter: @Rebaboutique

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