Independents…Poor Relation or Relatively Poor?

Travelling the length and breadth of the U.K. , Julia and I come across some rubbish shops. That’s not just within our own market place, cafés , sandwich shops, newsagents, convenience stores, petrol station shops and loads of others that sell stuff as opposed to retailing. They are poorly lit, poorly stocked, grim layouts and apathetic service. In reality, they are not retailers. They are not owned and run by retailers they are owned and run by people . Which is just not the same.

I remember that during the mass closure of the coal mines, the most popular start ups with redundancy money were Bakers. I assume the rational were that the ex miners liked their bread, used to early hours and hard graft and perhaps their area did not have an independent bakery. All good reasons but not necessarily the right reasons . Firstly they did not question why there was not a bakers, they had not run a business before, least of all a shop, they would have had little training and I suggest just as significantly they had been used to working in a team. Now they were on their own. I would doubt that any of those bread shops, still exist today.

In recent times, I am being in exact so as not to offend the subject, I visited a potential new customer. The shop did not look attractive. The proprietor was very pleasant, not always the case, but when asked why he had started this business, the response was…

I didn’t enjoy what I was doing before

Not an usual nor unreasonable response, but the motivation and rationale for opening a new retail outlet was completely absent. Further into the discussion illustrated a complete lack of knowledge of both retailing and the market within which he was operating. What was even more disturbing was the lack of local knowledge of the area in which he lived.

Now none of this may preclude his future success, but it is symptomatic of many who think opening a shop is a good idea. About three or four years a couple approached me at a trade show because they were looking for suppliers for a new shop they were planning to open. They were enthusiastic, had previously worked in a cafe (worked in not owned) and felt that the small town in which they lived needed a party shop. I knew the area and suggested that they looked at other good party shops to get an idea of locations, ranges, prices, costs…..None of these things had even crossed their minds. Fortunately for them, and I don’t think because of my advice, the shop never materialised.

Independents, this may be a surprise to some, do have advantages over multiples. By definition they are independent which enables them to be more fluid, innovative, flexible, original , in touch with local needs and above offer a knowledgeable and personal service. Yet the rubbish ones seem to go to every length to avoid all of this. Forty years ago, you could just open a shop and sell whatever and maybe make a reasonable living, or at least as much as in paid employ, and be your own boss. You can’t now.

When Julia and I first started working together, we would go into a potential new customer and at the end of our discussion with the proprietor we said we would confirm everything we discussed by email. Occasionally, we received the somewhat strange riposte that

I don’t do email

So invariably we didn’t do business. Just to be clear , we are not talking last century or even last decade. And this not about us doing business with them , but them being able to do business with anyone, suppliers or customers .

The really good independents , ‘Sparkle’. You know when you are in one. It doesn’t matter what type of retailer it is, it does not matter what they are selling. But from the moment you enter that store, you are ‘wanted’ as a customer . You know that you want to buy there and probably know that you want to come back again….‘wanted and want to…‘ being the key words

I have previously posted about two brothers , in their early twenties, having no retail experience , started a small convenience store outlet, which has matured into small but successful chain. The significant difference is that they had vision, drive and focus. Most days we will experience an independent retailer whose only drive can be found on their way to and from work. Some may think this a little disingenuous, but there is no given right for a shop to succeed just because it is there. I have seen it so often in my own local shops. Local residents bemoaning the closure of another dreadful independent retailer, which they rarely visited. Then to have the gaul to moan about the new one because they are new and different! They even went to lengths of opposing a licence to sell alcohol as they felt there was enough shops selling booze in the parade. Three others to be precise, one being a crappy wine store that has since closed, the other two are a Sainsbury’s convenience store and a Co-op. The new store turned out to be an excellent deli, which has become a roaring success.

Poor service, poor product ranges, poor atmosphere and poor stock levels will inevitably lead to a very poor shop keeper. Good independents should never consider themselves the poor relation of the multiples . They are (generally ) leaner, fitter, happier and more adaptable. In many respects they are in a better position to meet the stresses and strains of the constantly changing retail scene. If they do it well, they need never to be relatively poor.

I believe that a ‘good’ independent retailer has a better future than any mediocre chain .

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