Small Business Saturday: Ali’s Cave, Lothian Road

Father Anwar Ulhaq and owner Adnan Ulhaq. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Father Anwar Ulhaq and owner Adnan Ulhaq. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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EDINBURGH likes its institutions. National galleries and museums, palaces and castles, large department stores which have sold delights and wonders to the city’s population for more than a century.

But it has other institutions too, of the kind which you likely pass by every day without thinking much about where they came from, who is behind them or how long they’ve been there – because they’ve always been there.

Places like Ali’s Cave. For more than 30 years the Ulhaq family has been trading in 
Edinburgh – with a foray across the water to Dunfermline – supplying their customers with everything from greetings cards to artisan baking accessories, bread bins to duvets, nails and screws to pens and pencils, its Lothian Road store is a cornucopia of potentially everything you might require at some point in your life as well as things you never knew you needed until you saw them.

“I always say we should have just called it Aladdin’s Cave from the start, because that is what it is,” smiles Adnan Ulhaq, the latest in the family to help run the homewares business which was started by his father Anwar, and named after his grandfather. The former Stewart’s Melville pupil and Barclays banker has returned home after five years in London, he says, to “do what I always knew I wanted to do, which was be involved in the business.”

And the 32-year-old is convinced that supporting a grassroots campaign like Small Business Saturday this weekend can only be good for their business and for the whole Lothian Road and Tollcross area. “To be honest I think our area needs to have a Business Improvement District similar to what they have in other parts of town. Things are beginning to look up but I do believe that small businesses need to pull together to make sure we have a future.

“We do that already, as businesses we try and help each other out, be it lending carrier bags if someone’s run out, or giving change if the banks are shut. This weekend is just part of that and it’s something we can build on.”

This Saturday is a day when small businesses are supposed to do just that – as well as pull out the stops to attract regular and new customers into the business. The idea is that if people shop locally on a regular basis it becomes a hard habit to break – but businesses need to be able to offer something that online stores and mass retailers can’t or won’t.

According to the CBI, small and medium-sized businesses account for 99.9 per cent of private sector companies and provide 60 per cent of private sector jobs, so the Small Business Saturday campaign believes that its once a year day focussing on those businesses can help their longevity, and as a result local economies.

The idea has been imported from the United States where it was first introduced to get people to spend their money in independent stores after Thanksgiving. Last year it’s believed to have pumped an extra £486m into the UK economy as shoppers coughed up an average of £33 on the day.

Says Adnan: “My father and his brothers began our business in 1981 on South Bridge and at one time we had four shops, so we have seen the market change a lot in those years. We had to close two shops when pound stores launched, because that proved to be a real competition for us. So we changed our strategy and our stock, and these days we carry some items which can only be bought here or at John Lewis, and I like to think we offer them at a more competitive price.

“Certainly we are seeing a near ten per cent increase in year on year sales. Price cutting by large multinationals and the boom in online sales have hurt many small retailers in recent years - we don’t have an online presence because of the vast variety of our stock – but we’re noticing a definite upward trend, with customers coming into the store wanting good old-fashioned advice about what product is best for them.

“We can also pick up on trends based on what customers are asking for and respond quickly. If you have products which are fairly priced then the consumer keeps coming back. We don’t get the discounts on products that big stores do, so to be competitive we cut into our margins, but that’s just what we have to do.”

He adds: “The perception of the shop back then was low value, but it’s different now. For instance we are the second shop to stock Papyrus greeting cards, Fenwick’s department store is the other one.

“Great British Bake Off has been brilliant for us because we stock Kitchencraft products, probably the second largest range of them in Edinburgh. And we have wool, and Brabantia bins, and crafty stuff – it attracts a wide range of customers.

“We’ve benefited a lot from the financial district bringing hundreds of people into the area. We also have a large student customer base and many older people too. We have one particular lady who comes in every Tuesday after being at the cinema – I’ve known her since I was six and I think that’s great.”

Adnan believes that they are not the only independent stores to see things improving and that trade is on the up across many businesses. “There seem to be far more small businesses opening up in town, particularly now that the tram is finally running.”
Certainly that has been supported by the Centre for Cities Small Business Outlook Report which earlier this year ranked Edinburgh second in the UK for having the most high-growth small and medium businesses.

“If Edinburgh residents want to see more variety, quality products and customer service often lacking in large chains, we need them to support independent shops and small businesses over this festive period,” says Adnan, “and throughout the rest of the year.”

• To celebrate Small Business Saturday this weekend, Ali’s Cave will be offering customers mulled wine, mince pies and a ten per cent discount for anyone mentioning Small Business Saturday.

Football Nation’s goal is customer service

IF there was a retail market in which you would imagine small independent stores might find it hard to flourish, it would be in sportswear. Or footballing merchandise to be more precise.

With JD Sports, Sports Direct, football club shops and countless online sites available, the idea of opening a one-off shop specialising in replica football strips, boots, shin guards, goalie gloves and everything from branded tracksuits to pencil cases, would be red-carded from the off.

And yet Football Nation on Lothian Road is doing just that - and is thriving.

“We opened eight years ago,” says co-owner Steven Dow. “I had worked before for a big chain, JJB Sports, and while the emphasis there was on customer service, the reality was that it was purely cost-driven so the customer service wasn’t good enough. I and my business partner decided we could do it better – and I think we were proved right.”

JJB Sports went into administration two years ago, eventually being bought out by rivals Sports Direct, which still uses the name to trade under at certain stores.

“Football is the biggest sport in the world, we don’t do any other sport here,” Steven adds. “That focus means we can offer our customers a real expertise in what is available.

“We like to think we do what we do incredibly well and that we’re the number one football retailer in Scotland because of our product range.”

Not only does the store cater to the fan, but to players and to teams. It supplies kits to many of Edinburgh’s youth teams, such as Hutchison Vale.

However cost is always an issue with football brands. “You can’t get away from that. We’re not the cheapest but we’re competitive, and our customer service is second-to-none.

“For instance, if we don’t have what they’re looking for in store we contact the manufacturers directly to try to source it and we offer full printing facilities on all kits.”

The shop opens seven days a week, but Steven says at first most business was Monday to Friday thanks to the nearby large financial district and the thousands of employees.

“But since we’ve become a destination store we’re very busy at weekends too,” he adds.

“But like all small businesses we look for ways to promote what we do, so that’s why Small Business Saturday is a great idea.

“We’ve told all our customers about it, and about how vital to us their loyal, repeat custom is, as well as the benefits to the town of having small businesses like ours succeed. It’s all about giving customers and consumers a real choice and a level of service they can’t get in bigger chains.”

Porty’s specialist shops will get streetwise for Christmas festival

EYES widen automatically the moment you step into Faver’s Candy Emporium. It’s an automatic physical response to the rows of jars of brightly-coloured boiled sweets, the technicolour stands of swirly lollipops, the counter of every flavour fudges…

But while you might think selling sweets to kids is a sure-fire winner when it comes to business, with repeat custom a given, owner June Robertson knows it’s not that easy.

She opened Favers in Portobello three-and-a-half years ago, and says making profit on selling quarter bags of sweets is hard work. “But we’ve got a lot of loyal customers and we’ve expanded and now run an ice-cream parlour and a coffee shop which helps through the winter. I do think it’s important that businesses give something back to the community they rely on for their trade,” she says.

This is why she is heavily involved in the organising of tomorrow’s Christmas Street Fest. It may not coincide precisely with Small Business Saturday but it’s all part of the same ethos, says June. “I do think businesses should give back, to not just be about taking people’s money,” she says. “There’s a very strong community spirit in Portobello, and people support small, local shops, so we should support them too.

“We’ve run a Golden Ticket competition in the store, and as a result 100 kids will get gifts from Santa’s elves this Thursday evening when he arrives in a fire engine. There’s so much happening. We’ve got a local dance school performing, Santa will go up to the balcony at the Town Hall, and just as it looks like he’s going to switch on the lights, the cast of Frozen will appear and sing Let It Go. “It’s all been organised by Portobello businesses and I think our customers really appreciate it. A lot of the kids who’ll be there are my customers and some will be future ones too. I think it’s right we do something for them too. ”

Lots of other Portobello stores will be out on the street taking part in the evening, like The Wild Flower Shop which is run by Berlin-born Esther Kuck, a flower sculptress who also runs German Christmas decoration-making classses.

“Lots of places have lost the community feel, but Portobello is different,” she says. “We are really looking forward to Thursday and we will be offering German mulled wine and baked biscuits to help get people in the Christmas mood.

“We are a small flower shop but we offer something different which is what independent shops need to do. In Scotland it seems that people mostly buy flowers from small shops when they are a gift, or to send to someone. But in Germany, shops like mine are used by people who are buying for themselves, so that’s what I am doing here too. We offer different flowers, different arrangements. And we offer small arrangements too so people can feel they can buy them for themselves and they are not too showy.

“This is a very important time of year, so it’s a good thing that there’s a nationwide focus on small businesses. We put a lot of effort into making the shop look attractive, offering something unique, and getting involved in the community. It is a very tight-knit community and people like to support each other, including businesses.”

• For more information on Portobello’s Street Fest visit http://www.portobellocc.org