Are you brave enough to open a retail shop at the moment?

I expect most of you reading this headline would say ‘NO WAY’ - who would be daft enough to do something like that this in the current economic climate? Well the truthful answer is ‘plenty of people’. Both small independents and larger multiples. But why are they doing this when so many outlets are closing; what do they know that we don’t?

The retail press is full of doom and gloom, major high street names closing and thousands of jobs at risk or already gone. It would be very easy to think that high street retailing is about to implode and that the only way that we will be able to buy things in the future is online; but is that really the case?

Bill Grimsey’s second report published in July this year is hard hitting. In his conclusion he comments that:

Unless drastic action is taken, things are going to get worse. There has been too much timid tinkering in the margins by Westminster and local government… new thinking, fresh leadership and ambitious initiatives need to be embraced.

Michael Weedon of exp2 spends his time researching the retail landscape and certainly accepts that things are tough, but his explanation of the trends we are seeing tells a slightly different story.  As chairman, also, of the FSB’s national retail policy unit, it is worth considering his more positive view of things.

Times are tough for retailers, but then when did you last hear one say that times are easy? It's not supposed to be easy. Is it?

The churn of openings and closures (births and deaths) of all types of shop continues to impress, with roughly 125 new shops opening in Britain every day (including Sundays) last year. In the past year closures exceeded openings, but not by much. Over the past five years, net numbers have grown and vacancy shrunk.

Greetings card shops have declined just a little over that period and their numbers have been remarkably stable. They last on average for a decade. Compare that with gift shops, where the average shop trades for more like four years - and cards look like a good bet. It's always nice to open a card. So perhaps it's not a bad idea to open a card shop!

The greeting card industry has suffered plenty of closures over the last few years with some big chains closing or being refinanced. But there is a good news story to tell in our sector too with many multiple retailers opening more stores every year: for example, Card Factory consistently opens new shops and now has over 900 of them. Only 12 years old, Card Zone has grown from a regional business to one with more than 100 shops across the UK. Paperchase opens stand alone shops, concessions and franchises every year and Scribbler will have almost 40 shops by the end of this year.

Foreign retailers see the UK high street as an opportunity too with Smiggle and Kikki K having bullish opening programmes and Typo, the relatively new kid on the block from Australia, is having a big impact in the towns where they are trading, as customers love their humorous cards and the exciting product offer.

Something that particularly interests me is the number of card publishers who are opening retail outlets.

Ohh Deer have always wanted to be known as a brand that allowed illustrators ‘to find an audience for their work and showcase their designs. Founders, Jamie and Mark, are originally from Loughborough and Ipswich so it seemed fitting to find locations in their home towns to stamp their retail mark on the map.

oh-deer-loughborough.jpg

In 2016 their dream of retailing came to life when an opportunity arose in Loughborough for a shop to be part of a relocation plan for the warehouse and office - and less than 6 months later the second shop was well underway in Ipswich. They explain that:

Having the shops allows us to transcend the digital barriers of brand image into a physical space for customers to fully immerse themselves in. Retailing is definitely not without its challenges and having the shops has allowed us to appreciate the issues our independent customers may face…. it provides us with opportunities to gain perspective, test new products and packaging and to include this in the product development phase which has been invaluable. Where there is a challenge we're not without creative solutions!

Talking to Tim at Objectables he commented that:

‘One of the best things that we have got out of running a shop is that we are right in front of our customers and this has really helped us refine and develop our ranges, find gaps and really see what is selling and why. It has been a lot of hard work running the shop as well as the wholesale business but a real bonus has been the interaction with our customers, not least the fact that the background noise to our working day is people’s laughter.’

For businesses that have some cash and want to expand, now is a good time to be looking for new sites. There are some good locations to be had and they can be affordable if landlords are reasonable and not greedy and would rather have some rent rather than their properties stand empty - although this presumes that the business rates are reasonable too!!

But there is another option - and that is to selling your card ranges to other retailers. Kathy Starr at Gifted in Thaxted (Dilly & Pink Cards) and Lucy Sticka & Heidi Richardson, of Little Paperie, in Ashbourne, are now offering their cards to other retailers and going the full monty by exhibiting at shows too. 

It is undoubtably a tough time out on the high street and there is no sign that it is going to get easier any time soon - but if you have a tendency to think a glass is half full rather than half empty, then it is definitely worth keeping your eyes open.