How we’re keeping our independents

Wednesday, January 17, 2007
1:34 PM

Across our communities dozens of local independent businesses are fighting off competition from national and multi-national companies. Here, we meet just a handful of them.

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Across our communities dozens of local independent businesses are fighting off competition from national and multi-national companies.

Here, we meet just a handful of them.

This April one of Norfolk's oldest family shop groups celebrates 170 years of trading - having not just survived but thrived through the continuing onslaught of the chain store.

Palmers began life in 1837 when Garwood Burton Palmer opened a small drapery shop in Yarmouth market place.

Nearly two centuries later Palmers is not only still an independent business but that shop is now a large department store and Palmers boasts outlets in Dereham, Lowestoft, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket.

The group is one of the largest independent retail companies in East Anglia employing more than 400 staff and while its success is reminiscent of an age when family stores dominated the high street it is also down to keeping up with the times.

Present chairman and managing director Bruce Sturrock is the great, great, great nephew of Garwood Burton Palmer and represents the fifth generation of family management.

He said: “One of the things we put a lot of emphasis on is the personal and specialist service and although we are very proud of being 170 years old the only reason we are here is because we have changed.

“There have been some incredible changes just over the past few years with the internet and new developments like Chapelfield opening and more out-of-town complexes and we are aware that we have to keep up with that to compete.”

Nearly three years ago the group bought Chadds in Lowestoft transforming it and next month will see a Principles concession going in to the store. Palmers already boasts lines by up-to-the minute fashion lines like French Connection and Morgan.

There are also modernisation plans afoot for the original Yarmouth base, which still boasts one of the central meeting points in the town - a coffee shop that sees 6,000 to 10,000 people going through each week.

But the quality of the shopping experience never detracts from the personal service which isn't bound up in the bureaucracy that can infuriate chain store customers. If customers complain, which Mr Sturrock says they rarely need to, they can see the top of each chain's management ladder although all staff are fully trained to deal with complaints.

Furthermore Palmers are part of Associated Independent Stores (AIS), the largest independent buying group in the UK to which Jarrolds and Aldiss also belong.

Membership of AIS gives Palmers the buying power necessary to compete with big name high street chains and allows them to offer a price promise that will refund the difference if an item is found cheaper elsewhere.

t Palmers head office tel: 01493 844291

A “warm smile and personal service” are offered at Nicholson's of Holt. Since 1989, it has offered a wide collection of women's wear to the local community, rivalling larger London competitors with its loyal customer base.

Set in a large Georgian building on the High Street, a varied range of clothes, footwear, handbags, jewellery and other accessories are available from key designers such as French Connection, Roxy, Olsen and Grape Lanes.

The shop is divided between two floors, the ground floor aimed at the older age range from thirty upwards, and the first floor intended for those looking for younger designs.

Owner Clare Nicholson believes the key to their success has been their different approach from other clothing shops, as they offer a “special shopping trip” for their clients, but give credit to the consistent support of their returning customers, which in the main are from Holt and the surrounding area.

They don't offer internet sales from their website, as they believe visiting the shop, being part of the local community and having a face to face greeting, where people can feel the clothes and talk about the items they're looking for is really important for both the customer and the local area.

t Nicholsons of Holt, 33 High Street, Holt, tel: 01263 711230

When the last remaining shop in the small village of Thornham, near Hunstanton, closed the two women determined to replace it must have been aware they were taking a gamble in a world of supermarket chains.

But not only has their shop proved a huge success it has gone on to take in the already shut-down post office and in a month will see the launch of a café. And it is all in less than eight months since opening.

The shop on the A149 coast road through the village is being run by Patti Gambling, landlady of the Old Coach House pizza restaurant in Thornham, and Tania Rowell, the holder of a genetics degree who took charge of the post office when it opened in mid-July.

As well as stocking basic household goods the shop has a newsagent and delicatessen counter and now offers an expanding range of organic produce, gifts and cards.

Mrs Gambling said one of its main attractions is the fact that it can be more open to customers' needs. Their views are listened to, as is evident in the fact that it offers a 'wish-list' for them to detail what stock they would like to see.

She said that the shop looks to source locally, extending its success to the supply chain and giving customers who now have a high sense of the importance of buying local produce what they want. She said that holidaymakers are also keen to sample what the region has to offer.

It also includes in a wide range of organic produce such as cheese, fruit and vegetables and is trying to integrate that into the mainstream stock.

“We have extended our deli range and people like being able to buy a small amount of this and that to try. We also have a better range of gifts.

“Basically we try and give customers what they want.”

But the shop offers much more than the products on its shelves and its success lies in its place as a social centre in the community.

Just under 40pc of households in Thornham with a population of about 450 are second homes. Of the remainder about 60pc are elderly people.

Mrs Gambling said: “This is the only shop in the village and for people who don't go into the pub it is the only place for them to meet and the café will cater for that even more.”

t Thornham Village Shop tel: 01485 210618

Still in its infancy, the Walsingham Partnership has already revolutionised the idea of a farm shop in a rural setting. Having opened only in June 2006, a restaurant as well as a fish and chip shop have already been added to the collective group in the popular pilgrimage village.

The concept began through the frustration for the local producer with the usual direct food chain from supplier via retailer to customer, with the retailer gaining a monopoly on the process.

Walsingham wanted to reverse this practice, so the suppliers are integral to the procedure, having a voice in the distribution of their product and the price, as well as taking an equal share of the profit.

“The price is acceptable to all”, says Giles Blatchford, one of the key founders. “Farms are in crisis and as a local community we need to give some control back to all parties in the chain - sweetcorn is a classic example, when there were few, the producer wanted a higher price to sell them more slowly, and then when there were more, they lowered the price.”

The benefits are not just for the suppliers, Walsingham as a community and an economy has flourished since the partnership began, and Giles believes they have “added value” to the area. “Many of the community have a strong ownership of the businesses and the village, which is great - we've really benefited from word of mouth and at the end of the day, businesses only succeed if we serve our customers too.”

t The Walsingham Farm Shop Partnership, Guild Street, Walsingham, Norfolk, tel: 01328 821877

A family who started their business life supplying linen to Oliver Cromwell's army are celebrating as their village shop, which serves a picturesque Suffolk community marks 300 years of trading. John Howard paid them a visit.

Many shop-keepers have seen their concerns go to the wall in the onslaught from supermarket giants, leaving dormitory villages scattered around the county.

But at pretty Debenham, near Stowmarket, a family has survived the test of time and their business Henry Abbott Ltd, established in 1707, thrives in the heart of the community to this day.

Today's general stores in Chancery lane sells everything from coal to “fancy goods”, paint and DIY products to kitchenware.

The shop has evolved through the years from being a grocers, drapers, gentleman's outfitters and a tea dealership.

It is cherished by villagers today, a community which still has vibrant businesses including a post office, three pubs, a newsagents, butchers, greengrocers, a jewellers, florists, a Co-op and a hairdresser.

The family have seen horse and cart grocery deliveries from 1900-1949 evolve into a fleet of vehicles during the last century.

Barry Turner, 64, whose mother was an Abbott and who has been running the shop since 1957, today continues to offer a huge range of services, including dry cleaning and video rentals.

Mr Turner, who lives in Debenham, said: “We have always aimed to have a good personal service and have very good staff who stick with us and look after the customers.

“Our secret is hard work and running a tight operation, we can't drive around in flashy cars, that would lead to insolvency fairly quickly.

“When the big supermarkets move in with their huge car parks people call in there on their way home from work and can forget their little village shops.

“But we have some loyal customers who stick with us and believe we offer a better range than people could find in Ipswich.”

His wife Christine, 47, who also works in the shop, said the new housing estate built in Debenham helps trade and without their staff the shop would not be what it is today.

She said: “The Abbott family wanted to serve the community, as well as make a living.

“We are hoping my daughter will carry on here after us, keeping the shop's name.”

Sue Fitch, a sales assistant who has worked at Henry Abbott Ltd for 20 years, said: “It's such a friendly place, easy going. We are all working here for the same reason, to keep the place open for the people of Debenham.”

In the turbulent times of 1650 a certain Thomas Abbott the elder moved with his family from Hadleigh to Debenham.

These were dangerous times because Oliver Cromwell's army had recently taken control of the country, replacing the monarchy with the short-lived Commonwealth.

But the Abbott family supplied linen to the army and flourished.

Thomas Abbott bought the Green Dragon Inn at Debenham, where he and his sons set up a business as a cordwainers working with Cordova leather.

By 1707 they were able to purchase and expand into another block of cottages to found a business, which has been run by members of the Abbott family ever since.

The business was carried on by Thomas Abbott's son Jeremiah, followed by his grandson Thomas and his great grandson William, who at the time of his marriage to Margaret Lockwood in 1747 was registered as a tailor and draper.

William's son John established the grocery side of the business working as a grocer and draper in the same premises for 50 years.

Henry Abbott, the 15th surviving son of John and Mary, continued the business and passed it onto his eldest son another Henry, around 1870.

This Henry married Sophie Annie Watson, who was related to the Watson's of Rockingham Castle.

She smartened up the business premises and introduced a uniform for the sales assistants.

The business continued to flourish and has stayed in the Abbott family's hands ever since, being everything through the years from a dealership in Mazawattee tea in 1894, a hat shop and drapers in 1904, to a general store over the last century.

Today the store offers dry cleaning and videos for hire among its many services to local people.

Ray Watts, who has lived in the community for 15 years and shops regularly at the store, said: “It's a great service to the village, if you want something they will have it.

“It's like going into a shop from the old days. It's old school. If you can't find a bolt you want, they will have it.”

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