THE high street has taken a battering of late. Recession has seen many small stores pack up to leave empty units to blight once-thriving shopping areas, while large out-of-town supermarkets have been blamed for sucking trade out of traditional town centres.
Yet despite the doom and gloom and the any-moment-now fear of an international chain of coffee shops opening their latest cafe just two doors along from their last one, there are retailers who are still carving out their own niche and winning a loyal clientele in the process.
If the Scottish Independent Retail Awards are any judge, then Edinburgh’s independent stores are thriving. From technology repair shops to bookstores, dry cleaners to high fashion boutiques, Edinburgh shops were well represented when it came to the shortlists of the 18 categories.
When the awards were handed out on Tuesday night, five city stores were named top of the shops.
Amit Arora of the event’s organisers Creative Oceanic says: “With the high street so often being dominated by large chains, it is important to recognise and applaud those who work to provide the public with an alternative, along with the great level of customer service and care which comes from being an active member of the community.
“The event gives the public the opportunity to say thank you to these people and let them know how much they are appreciated.”
But just how do you survive as an independent in tough financial times when bigger competitors are on your doorstep?
And do so well enough for your customers to nominate you for an award? Here, three of the winners tell why they think they’ve made it.
LOOPY LORNA’S TEAROOM
Eatery of the Year
THERE can be few people partial to a cup of tea and a slice of cake who haven’t heard of Loopy Lorna’s the Morningside tearoom, based in the Churchill Theatre. Founder Gaynor Salisbury has made sure of that with her eccentric range of mismatched crockery and giant slabs of sponge cake – but she believes it’s the standard of service which might have clinched the award, as well as ensure survival in a street where coffee shop chains abound.
“The fact that this award is given because you’re nominated by your customers and then judged by a mystery shopper means a lot,” says the 53-year-old. “It’s really special. But I would say it’s all down to the staff and manager Tracy, who have put into practice a lot of things I’d wanted to do but hadn’t got round to.”
Gaynor has been forced to take a back seat in the business she named after her mother, as she’s suffering from secondary breast cancer and still receiving chemotherapy treatment. “But it’s all in very good hands. Tracy [Somerville, the manager] has been running the business for the last year while I’ve been having chemo and this is a real boost for me and proves to Tracy that she’s been doing a fantastic job.
“I so wanted to win it, probably more than anyone else in the category. It’s a great reward for all the hard work, that the blood, sweat and tears has been worth it. It’s a hard industry to be in, there’s so much competition. There’s a phenomenal number of places you can get tea and coffee in this area, but I think people are fed up with the generic places and are looking for something different.”
Tracy, 38, adds: “I absolutely love coming to work here and I want all our staff to feel the same way. If you have happy staff, you have happy customers – it rubs off. We’ve also listened to our customers’ comments and introduced a play area for children, free wifi, and changed things like the size of our scones in the afternoon tea. I think people like being able to have that influence – and we can respond because we’re independent and not a chain – so they feel a certain ownership.” Gaynor says that their involvement with community charities also serves to make them feel more valued by local customers.
She adds: “I have been lucky in having great people around me who have helped make Loopy Lorna’s what it is, and have helped me when I’ve been ill. Without them – and without our great customers – we probably wouldn’t still be here.”
THE EDINBURGH BOOKSHOP
Book/Stationery Retailer of the Year
FOR five years Vanessa Robertson toiled at the shopfront of the Bruntsfield bookstore – until selling up just weeks before it won the award.
So on Monday night it was new owner Marie Moser, 50, who put on her best frock to attend the awards dinner in Glasgow.
“But it is testament to the hard work of Vanessa and her husband Malcolm, as well as Cat Anderson and Lila Matsumoto, who’ve both been here for years,” says Marie.
“It’s a great boost though to be given something like this, after being nominated by customers, it proves that the shop is doing the right thing.”
Marie, who has worked in marketing for most of her life, was a regular at the store and when Vanessa decided to sell and concentrate on her Fidra publishing business, she took over just a fortnight ago.
“It’s a reward for the team and the customers,” she says. “We have a wonderful customer base around here who come in almost daily to talk about books they’ve heard about which they think we should have or to talk about what we do have. In fact we were once described as what Radio 4 would be like if it were a book shop.”
However, Marie admits that selling books is hard graft with competition from chains and the internet.
“It’s not the easiest business to be in. But we have to provide the service that people want.
“We can be just as flexible as the internet. We can order a book and have it in in two days and when the weather was bad a few years ago at Christmas the shop delivered to people’s doors. But it’s the knowledge of the staff that makes us different, so we try to read most of the stock between us.”
She adds: “Cat, for instance, is encyclopaedic about children’s books and loves nothing better than sitting with a child, who maybe struggles with reading or just wants to try something new, and finding them a book they will want to read. I like to think we’re aiming more for John Lewis levels of expertise and service, rather than Aldi.”
Marie says that she was “incredibly flattered” when Vanessa sold the business to her as she’d said it would only go to a “safe pair of hands”.
Vanessa adds: “It was odd getting texts about the shop winning the award. It did make me feel a bit wobbly, but it’s fantastic news. We knew that we’d been shortlisted the day Marie took over, and winning feels like the best ending. I think Marie is going to do a brilliant job but this [the award] was me and my staff. Now I expect her to win stuff as well,” she laughs.
THE MANNA HOUSE
Fresh Produce Retailer of the Year
OPENED seven years ago by third-generation baker Drew Massey – his grandfather and father were bakers in Grimsby – this Easter Road bakery and cafe is one of Edinburgh’s hidden gems.
The place never stops. Every day it produces up to 20 different varieties of wheat, rye and spelt bread and rolls, butter croissants, pain au chocolat, almond croissants, Danish pastries and Aberdonian butteries, as well as a massive range of French patisserie and classic tea-time cakes. Then there’s the fresh Italian and French bread pizza, savoury quiches, tarts and pastries – all of which are why Drew was unable to pick up the award. He was on the night shift baking rota.
“So I went instead,” laughs operations manager Matthew Halsall. “I went through with another colleague and we were just blown away to win. We didn’t even know we’d been nominated until we got an e-mail ten days ago saying we were finalists.
“It’s a total mystery who did nominate us, and then of course you are judged by a mystery shopper, so you just have no idea that it’s happening. We were so surprised and flattered that someone had taken the time to nominate us.”
The 44-year-old adds: “We were up against stiff competition but everyone was really gracious when we won. It was really exciting. But the award is for the team of staff who work here who all work incredibly hard and also for our extremely loyal customers.”
Matthew puts the store’s success down to the vision of Drew, the hard work of the ten-strong team and good pricing. “High streets are finding it hard but Easter Road is still a traditional kind of high street.
“We start making croissants 48 hours before we bake them – there’s a lot of work involved. So it’s great to get a response from customers saying something was delicious, but to have something more official like this award is the icing on the cake.”
HOST OF BUSINESSES CLEAN UP AT AWARDS
A HOST of different independent retailers from Edinburgh made it to the shortlist of this year’s awards – some even picking up the glass trophy in their category.
Kleen Cleaners, on St Mary’s Street, was named as “Service Provider of the Year”. The drycleaners is the oldest such store in Edinburgh – it opened in 1947 – and even has a Royal warrant so could no doubt get a muddy Corgi paw print out of the Queen’s best frock without breaking sweat.
But most of the time it’s the care and attention it lavishes on customers’ clothes, be it a suit or a wedding dress, which ensures a loyal clientele – so much so that they nominated the drycleaners for the award.
And while its spotless credentials are second to none, it has also recently branched out into selling vintage clothing and accessories – all squeaky
clean of course.
Travel agent Bridge the World in George Street was also named in the shortlist of the same category.
Technology Retailer of the Year – sponsored by the Federation of Small Businesses – went to Netversal Communications. The South Bridge store, which has been open for six years, sells a range of computer and mobile phone accessories, storage media products, cables, mobile phones, cameras and gaming accessories. It also has a repair section and claims to be the “most trusted iPod and iPhone repair centre” in the city.
Certainly it was the expert knowledge and friendliness of staff which wowed the judges. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that between the staff they can speak eight different languages – and there’s 70 years of technological experience among them, too.
In the tough “Fashion Retailer of the Year” category, Edinburgh was represented by Arkangel and Felon. The store, which is just two years old, has already made a name for itself with its impressive and eclectic range of women’s designer wear, but it lost out to a Dundee boutique.
Meanwhile in the Accessories Retailer of the Year section Edinburgh had two representatives – Flux in Bernard Street and Thistle Street designer shoe store Pam Jenkins.
In the “Off Sales Store of the Year” category, the independent wine merchant Great Grogg, which is based in East Cromwell Street, was shortlisted, while the Day Today store in Hay Avenue was a finalist in the Milk Retailer section and the International Newsagents in the High Street made the shortlist in the “Newsagent/Grocer of the Year group”.
In the Specialist Retailer category, the Leith-based Auldhill Soap Company, which creates organic soaps and bathbombs, made the shortlist, while in the Health and Lifestyle Retailer section Hanover Health Foods was one of the runners-up.