How independent retailers are fighting back
Last week saw the oldest jewellers in Tunbridge Wells announce it was closing shop after 147 years trading on the High Street.
Payne and Son sales consultant Jo Wicker cited several reasons why the shop was no longer deemed viable by its owner Francis Starkie.
She listed a decline in Christmas spending, a preference for people to park and shop under the same roof at Royal Victoria Place shopping centre and the unrelenting competition from online retailers.
Payne and Son is far from alone in feeling the adverse effects an increasingly dominant online retail industry is having on independent retailers.
Last year the Centre for Retail Research predicted £52.25billion would be spent online, representing 15 per cent of all retail sales in the UK.
Online retailer Amazon in 2014 recorded sales of £5.3 billion.
The dominance by the online giant was recently described as ‘absolutely heartbreaking’ and a ‘desperate state of affairs’ by former Number 10 advisor Rohan Silva.
The Times talked to a cross-section of local retailers to find out how they’re taking on the online competition…
Kitch is a specialist designer store which provides an ‘eclectic’ range of brands and was opened ten years ago by Charlotte Newman, who herself had previously spent 18 years in the fashion industry.
Mrs Newman believes the key to survival on the high street is to provide a good shopping experience and gain the loyalty of customers.
“Competing with online can be a problem, and it has affected us so I just make sure to work twice as hard in other areas.
“We have set up our own website which grows every year, but there are a certain amount of customers who will never buy clothes on the internet. And it is a hassle sending things back.”
“They want to feel the fabric, and many people are after the full shopping experience, which you do not get just from clicking a button.”
To make sure her customers keep coming back, Mrs Newman goes to great lengths to provide them with what they want.
“I offer one-on-one service to my customers, some of which I have had for years.
“This means I completely know their tastes and know exactly what they will want when I go to buy clothes in LA, Paris or Milan.”
This effort means Mrs Newman’s product range of middle-market designer brands and high fashion is unique, always on trend and, importantly, hard to find online.
“A lot of the brands I sell will not be found online or are too new for people to know what to google for.
“What we are doing is going back to how it used to be and offering the level of service you just cannot get online.”
In Gear is an independent alternative clothing retailer based on Camden Road, which also provides a thriving T-shirt printing business.
Employee Sam Goss said the store was not overly concerned by the threat of online retailers as the brands they stock are fairly unique and they cater to a niche customer base.
Mr Goss explained: “We are a specialist shop and we are the only one around this part of Kent.
“Our customers prefer shopping in a store and say it is a hassle to buy clothing online, if they mention going online at all, which the regulars don’t.
“We also do not have to undercut online competition due to the uniqueness of our brands, which are hard to find elsewhere and are quite alternative.”
In addition, the store has diversified, he said. “We have a lot of customers for print, especially the local schools who get their leavers’ hoodies done here.
“We have also provided prints for local businesses such as The Black Dog café among others.”
The Vapour Trail is an independent e-cigarette retailer with exclusive rights for the distribution of Totally Wicked e-cigarettes in the South East.
However, despite online competition not having a significant impact on his business at the moment, co-founder Ian Rockingham believes ongoing developments mean this can change.
He said: “Our biggest online competition is with our own supplier, Totally Wicked.
“At the moment we are pretty exclusive and not many people sell that brand and so online does not bother us for the moment.
“There is also little difference in price between what we each offer.
“However, the major brands, led by Totally Wicked, have formed a conglomerate called UKVB (UK Vapour Brands) and if they push online that could become a problem.
“They could also end up opening their own shops nearby and as Totally Wicked is part of them it won’t be seen as a breach of our exclusive rights, and that would be problematic.”
THE MUSIC MAN
The well-known Brittens store on the junction of Mount Pleasant and Grove Hill Road has occupied the location of music retailers for more than 100 years.
Director Andrew Collins said the store has had to change the way it approaches business to compete online.
“The game has changed and we had to change our service profile as now people are buying things online which they would have previously purchased here.
“Now we offer one-to-one teaching, repairs and other services and unique products.
“I think those in this industry which have struggled are the ones who have failed to adapt.”
ON YOUR BIKE
Velocipede is an independent bike retailer on Camden Road run by Manager Simon Clayton.
The store has weathered online competition by ensuring it offers a high level of service, with its current popularity meaning the retailer is about to undertake a complete refurbishment.
“We are growing massive,” said Mr Clayton.
“There is a lot of competition online offering our products for cheaper prices.
“But because of the complex nature of the business, such as fitting and repairs, we find we are able to compete.
“We find people shop online, get the wrong thing, and are then put off for life and that is because you cannot sell this type of service on the internet.”
COFFEE AND TEA
Perk & Pearl is an independent specialist coffee and tea retailer which was founded three years ago by Joe Lloyd, who himself has over 20 years of experience.
Mr Lloyd believes that although buying various teas and coffees online is becoming more common, with services available which send a new batch to the consumer on a regular basis, the market is also quite polarised.
“If you are driven by price you will go online, but if you want expert advice or premium products you will come here.
“What we offer is a holistic service, because if you want to do retail on the high street nowadays you have to provide an experience which cannot be given on the internet.”
To this end, the store displays local art, plays music and ensures its product range is kept extensive, while only importing in small batches to ensure fresh stock.
Mr Lloyd also believes business diversification is another important aspect of survival on the high street.
“What you need is to have different income streams, which is why we do a bit of online ourselves but are also moving on to the wholesale business.”