Loose's Cookshop is closing after 227 years - but its owner says the future of Norfolk's high streets is bright
PUBLISHED: 06:00 28 April 2018 | UPDATED: 08:29 30 April 2018
The owner of one of Norfolk's best-known retail names is confident the high street will evolve to survive, after announcing a fresh start for his historic business.
Loose’s Cookshop can trace its history in Norwich back to 1791 but will bow out this summer as its owners turn their attention to building a new business online.
But Bruce Crane, whose family is just the second to own the shop in more than 200 years, said the decision had not been forced upon the business and he remained upbeat about the “incredible ingenuity” of the Great British high street.
“We are still a profitable and well run business, and we are taking the decision now because we are not being pushed into it,” he said.
“We look ahead, and if we look at the pattern, it is clear. Footfall continues to decline and turnover follows footfall, so when you project forward you can see what’s going to happen.
“Even with the most clever marketing skills, we’ve not got the weaponry to change the fundamentals of what’s going on in the high street.”
The costs of doing business have never been higher, added Mr Crane, echoing many other retailers’ concerns over rises in the minimum wage and margins being squeezed by higher import costs caused by weaker sterling.
And the power of internet competition, which has already put many well-known names to the sword, had made life harder for smaller retailers without the same economies of scale, he added, pointing to yesterday’s first-quarter results for Amazon which showed the online retailer’s sales had risen 43% to more than £25bn.
Earlier this month, a report from PwC showed the East of England had seen a net 184 store closures in 2017.
But, describing himself as a “born-again optimist whose glass is three-quarters full”, Mr Crane, 57, refused to be downcast at the prospects for other retailers, instead praising those who had adapted to new customer demands.
“The high street isn’t dying at all. What we are witnessing is a fundamental change in shopping habits and shopping behaviours,” he said.
“The high street is moving out of products and into more service-related businesses: look at the number of coffee shops, hairdressers and nail bars opening up.
“Anyone who thinks it’s going to become a ghost town misunderstands the ingenuity of those who want to be on the high street.
“The high street will survive and change. The problem is we are going through a dramatic change the likes of which I’ve not witnessed in my career.”
In recent years retailers have sought to move the battleground for customers from price to experience in an attempt to outmanoeuvre online rivals.
The computer gaming chain Game has revamped many of its stores to become arcades where people can challenge their friends to games, while Virgin Holidays’ new outlet in Chapelfield includes a cocktail bar where customers can have a sip of the high life before booking their getaway.
Loose’s, for its part, has held knife skills workshops and moved into personalisation of items to set itself apart, but Mr Crane said smaller ventures often had to find their own specialist niche to flourish.
After Loose’s, Mr Crane and his wife Claire-Louise will launch a new business, The Knife Expert, to build upon their decades of expertise in knife handling, sharpening and repair.
It will capitalise on Loose’s existing links with some of the world’s best-known knife manufacturers, who refer customers to the Norwich company for all non-warranty repairs nationally. Knife work currently makes up around a quarter of the shop’s half-million pound turnover.
Alongside The Knife Expert, the Cranes also plan to invest in another business using the proceeds of the sale of the Loose’s building in Red Lion Street, and are assessing several options.
Mr Crane said he and his wife had been considering the change of direction for three years. The 12 staff were told last month, and are being helped to find new work, with three so far successful. A closing-down sale will begin on Tuesday, May 1, with the shop closing its doors for good at the end of June.
“The harder thing to do would have been to soldier on,” said Mr Crane. “Do you want to get out of bed every morning and realise that the path ahead is getting steeper and steeper? I want to get out of bed and have the enthusiasm to build up some speed.”
• Loose’s - a brief history
Loose’s was opened in Magdalen Street in 1791 by Jimmy Loose, and has been in the ownership of just two families over the following 227 years.
It remained with the founding family until 1933, when it was bought by Gerald Brett, and began specialising in china and glass.
That expertise was called upon during the Second World War, when children were evacuated from London to Great Yarmouth and Loose’s was called upon to supply 20,000 cups at just 24 hours’ notice.
The shop in Magdalen Street was completely gutted by a bomb in 1942, but Mr Brett rebuilt the business on the same site.
Mr Brett’s son, Michael, took over the shop in 1990. The Red Lion Street premises were bought in 1999 and the cookshop opened in 2000, before current owner Bruce Crane bought the retail business from his uncle in 2004, having been involved since 1985.
Though the former shop in Magdalen Street is still known as Loose’s Emporium, it is no longer connected to the cookshop and is not affected by its closure.
• ‘The high street will look very different’
High street businesses will need to adapt to cope with future challenges, says Stefan Gurney, executive director of the Norwich Business Improvement District.
He said customers are not just after a bargain, but also want a unique experience - something which cannot be replicated online.
“People don’t just want low prices,” Mr Gurney said. “Instead they want more of the experience and that is where the high street has to change.
“Stores that differentiate themselves or deliver great customer service, these are the ones which are doing well.
“Everyone has to look at their unique selling point and how they can engage with their demographic.”
Mr Gurney said he did not believe Norwich’s high street was dying. “In the future it will look very different to how it is now, but it also looks very different to how it was 20 to 30 years ago,” he added.