I’ve been a retailer on and off for as long as I can remember. Starting as a Saturday boy in Harry Fentons (remember them?) in Lewisham in 1977 and then, after university and some post-graduate research, in various forms under my own steam.
I was a musician for a while in the early 80s and, while I waited for fame and fortune, I ran a market stall in Covent Garden selling my own pottery. It wasn’t an unqualified success and I vowed I’d never stand behind a stall again, only to end up right back there 6 years later running stalls selling jewellery in Greenwich, Camden Lock, The South Bank, and again in Covent Garden.
By 1994 I’d largely given up on the music business, moved to Oxford and opened a small shop in the heart of the city with my partner. By small I mean minuscule. Around 80 Sq Ft if you use the same rubber tape measure as the estate agent that sold us the lease. The store was a great success and it’s modest stature didn’t seem to deter customers. In fact it was an asset, meaning customers had no choice but to interact with sales staff, bearing in mind they only needed to take two steps from the door to be nose to nose with whomever was standing behind the counter.
We then grew the company into a 6 store chain with branches as far south as Bluewater and as far north as Birmingham, including a store in the place that seems to have some sort of karmic attraction for me. Yes, you’ve guessed it, Covent Garden.
During that time I’ve dealt with all aspects of running a retail operation from humble beginnings to a multi-million pound turnover, along the way coping and working with marketing, human resources, government interference, individual and corporate landlords, UK and international suppliers, other retailers and of course that wonderfully diverse and engaging creature – the consumer.
In 2006 we saw the way the wind was blowing and reduced our portfolio to 4 stores which later shrunk to 2 when lease renewals fell due. In what seems to be a recurring theme in my retail life, one of those stores is in Covent Garden, where we’ve been since 2001. The other remains in Oxford.
As a reborn independent, I’ve come to once more appreciate the benefits of keeping things small and flexible (as the bishop said to the choirboy). Indie retail is now one of my greatest interests, both professionally and personally, and something I try to be an ambassador for. I believe that the changing nature of retail is going to leave the independent as one of the last bastions of diversity and innovation. It’s just a shame that staying small means less clout in an increasingly corporate world. But that just means you need to understand the rules and how to bend them, or sometimes make new ones.
I’m not a guru, there’s already plenty of those and I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else how to run their business. But after 26 years in the industry I think I have some insights into how the world of shopping has changed during what have been very eventful times on the high street. As a result I’ve done a bit of writing and commentating on the subject both online and in print and you can read my column on the back page of Retail Week Magazine nearly every month.
This blog is intended as a further repository for those musings, rantings and observations, with perhaps the scope to be a little less reverential than I need to be elsewhere. You may need to take some of what I say with a pinch of salt but I hope, dear reader, that you will join in with comments of your own. Be they in agreement or just to tell me that I’m talking out of my UORRs.