Independents' Day: How to save Hertfordshire's high streets
PUBLISHED: 10:11 18 June 2019 | UPDATED: 10:11 18 June 2019
Ahead of Independents' Day for small retailers on July 4, successful Herts independent shopkeepers discuss how to survive - and thrive - as the high street undergoes huge pressures
Will we recognise the high street by the end of the year? At the end of 2018, accountancy firm PwC reported that in the UK the rate of closure of shops in the UK was 14 a day. Industry experts point to the huge growth in online sales which can be done via a smart phone, laptop or tablet from anywhere, unprecedented discounting wars, and high business rates and rents for the demise of the great British high street. Yet even ASOS, the huge online fashion brand, issued an unexpected profit warning late last year, so it is not just bricks and mortar stores suffering.
According to a report by real estate advisor Altus Group, 2019 will be much worse than last year for retailers, with more than 23,000 shops forecast to close with the loss of 175,000 jobs.
In the coming months, a third of retail businesses will be making redundancies, according to a recent survey carried out by the British Retail Consortium. Stalwarts such as M&S, New Look and House of Fraser are disappearing in some town centres. At the time of writing, the latest casualties and beleaguered brands include L.K.Bennett and Paperchase, with John Lewis taking the decision to close its Southsea store in Hampshire, and Debenhams naming 22 of the 50 stores it will close, including in Welwyn GC. Debenhams closures next year follow its stores trading at 7.4 per cent down in the 26 weeks to March.
Amid the confusion and fears about what the future holds, there are those bucking the trend. In Herts we have some brilliant independent shops specialising in fashion, gifts and books. But how do they do it? How are they succeeding while others, including big trusted brands, are falling by the wayside? We asked a panel of succesful shopkeepers to give advice and share their top tips about how to survive and thrive on the high street in these unsettling times.
Meet the panel
- Sarah Clare
What Sarah did, Hitchin
Owner of this Hitchin fashion and lifestyle boutique, Sarah, is a gifted professional stylist. She is also refreshingly honest. She has been in business since 2010 and is a great ambassador for independent shops in Hitchin.
- Donna Nichol
Chloe James Lifestyle, St Albans
Chloe James Lifestyle is in a quirky Tudor building where Donna has been in business since 2010. The luxury store specialises in fashion, art, interiors and gifts, and is a Small Business Sunday Winner, an award backed by Theo Paphitis of BBC Two's Dragons' Den.
- Victoria Rex
The Women's Society Boutique, Hertford
Victoria founded this independent and award-winning shop in 2006. She has a degree in retail management and worked at BHS before starting her own business. The Women's Society Boutique is in a beautiful building on the corner of St Andrew's Street.
- Paul Wallace
David's Bookshop, Music & Café, Letchworth
Established in 1963 in the world's first garden city, David's is an institution. It has more than 50,000 new books, with a stellar collection of secondhand and antiquarian books, maps and vinyl too. Paul started working at the bookshop in 1995 and bought it in 2009.
- Harrison Block
D. Copperfield, St Albans
A contemporary lifestyle store for men offering niche clothing brands and accessories, D. Copperfield has been trading since 1973. Harrison worked here for 10 years before buying the shop six years ago.
Top 10 tips for retail success
- Be a destination
'Turn yourself into a destination that people want to come to,' says Paul Wallace. 'It's about physical presence and creating something where people will want to spend their time.'
'You have to create a really welcoming and attractive space,' says Donna Nichol. 'And you also have to help people. My customers often say to me that they know they'll find something here.'
- Look after your customers
Sounds obvious, doesn't it? But the mainstream retail brands often fall down when it comes to knowing how to treat people in store. As the owner of a small shop, you might well be the buyer, manager and shelf stacker, but if you can give your customers the time and be there in person, they'll thank you for it.
At the Women's Society Boutique, Victoria Rex always makes sure she is in the store to greet people, and is ready to offer help and advice. 'It's important to be there and it really makes a difference.'
- Be nimble
'One of the bonuses of being a smaller business is that you can react quickly to what your customers want. You can be innovative - you can move quickly and make decisions to change things without having a board meeting,' says Donna Nichol.
- Express yourself
'Independent retailing is about expressing yourself,' says Harrison Block, whose D. Copperfield store has clothing brands that you just won't find anywhere else in Hertfordshire. He also has beautifully curated magazines, designer camping equipment made in Japan and stuff that is both covetable and collectible. 'Have a shop full of things that you're passionate about,' he adds.
- Be social
'Without social media it would be very hard to survive,' says Donna Nichol. In Hitchin, Sarah Clare adds, 'I work really hard at it. And I do completely different content for Facebook and Instagram because it's for different audiences. It's 'double bubble'. And improving your Google profile really works.'
- Move away from online
You cannot be serious! But Victoria Rex is totally serious. 'Fashion and retail are emotive,' she says. 'It's about touching the fabric and seeing the real colours - they can look very different on screen.'
- Throw a party
As well as social media, it's important to be sociable in the real world. Hold events. Invite people in. At The Women's Society Boutique, Victoria has yoga classes in the shop. At David's, there is an eclectic programme of author events, and on Record Store Day people start queuing the night before, for live music and a day of vinyl delight.
- Be part of the community
If you are an independent retailer, it's important to get to know your neighbours to create a supportive business network. And of course, being there for the local community is key. Chloe James organises annual fashion shows in St Albans - now hot ticket events - to raise money for charity.
'I think a lot of people are getting the message about supporting your local bookshop,' says Paul Wallace, 'although I don't like the message "Use us or lose us" because it's so negative.'
'It's about collaborating with others,' says Sarah Clare. 'Being there for other small business owners and sharing ideas.'
- Be bold
'Don't be safe,' advises Harrison Block. 'You need to be bold, daring and niche.' He suggests trying out brands with limited distribution.
'You need to get your products right,' says Victoria Rex, who shows off the delightful Hayley Menzies knitwear she has recently introduced in Hertford. 'We have new and wonderful brands that are exciting and different.'
'Half of the shop is made up of little independent brands,' says Sarah Clare. 'And I'm always on the lookout for under-the-radar products.' Recent additions to the shop include Mos Mosh, Air & Grace and Shoe the Bear.
- Love it
'You've got to love it to do it,' says Donna. 'It's such a rollercoaster.'
'It's bloody hard work,' agrees Sarah. 'If you let the fear get to you, it's over. I'm just grateful for being here every day.'