Get ready for Small Business Saturday

Hal Nicoll. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Hal Nicoll. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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GLITZY television adverts, the multi-million pound campaigns featuring Oscar nominated superstars, cute cuddly cartoon characters or jolly families doing jolly Christmas things wearing jolly Santa jumpers – jaded shoppers have had it all and it’s not even mid-December.

Add in Black Friday and Cyber Monday – followed by cash-crisis Tuesday after bank machines angrily spat out our cards – and hitting the shops feels a bit of an ordeal.

Julie Nicoll. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Julie Nicoll. Picture: Ian Georgeson

But, according to Edinburgh’s hardy breed of independent shopkeepers, there’s a reason for that – it’s because we’re pretty much doing it all wrong.

For while bustling shopping malls and all-night internet browsing may have its attractions, they say what’s often missing are the elements which tend to make spending money that bit more satisfying: from polite interaction with our fellow man to absorbing the festive atmosphere, touching and seeing for ourselves the things we might like to buy and getting some useful advice from the person over the counter.

Now, in a bid to remind us that Edinburgh has a diverse wealth of independent shops, specialist traders and expert, free, advice, tomorrow has been declared Small Business Saturday, when shoppers are urged to instead support small neighbourhood businesses.

It’s an “everyone benefits” approach, says Ruth McKay, chairwoman of the Edinburgh branch of the Federation of Small Businesses. For not only do shoppers typically receive a better all-round experience, they also help keep the local economy ticking along, keeping business afloat and jobs secure.

Saqib Chaudhry. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Saqib Chaudhry. Picture: Ian Georgeson

“We all know that lots of people choose to shop in supermarkets and out of town retail parks,” she says. “And, of course, online shopping is growing all the time.

“But when you shop at a small, local business you get so much more. You get expertise and knowledge that you don’t usually get from a big store. You get items and gifts that are often unique, that you can’t find anywhere else.

“It’s just really much nicer to buy direct from someone and make shopping something of an event, stopping off at a cafe on the way, actually enjoying the experience.”

Small Business Saturday is an American initiative which started in 2010 to mark the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, when shoppers are often in a holiday mood to spend, spend, spend. Last year it generated around £3.5bn in sales and long-term custom.

“It’s about getting people to think about changing their behaviour,” adds Ruth. “We tend to think the internet is cheaper and more convenient, but then quite often our goods arrive and they’re not what we thought they’d be, we need to return them and it costs us more money and quite often we can find better products that are cheaper if we just look.

“Small businesses do a great job, many put on different events, they happily pass on their expertise, they can guide shoppers to things they might not have considered before.

“Edinburgh has so many speciality shops and independent businesses, they are critical to the local economy and vital to high street.”

‘I thought I’d go for it myself’

HAL Nicoll had two options when the art shop she worked in announced it was closing: face up to redundancy or go it alone.

“We knew that the shop was busy,” recalls Hal, who worked for an artists’ supply shop on North Bridge. “But the owners thought art was a dying trade.

“When it closed and I was looking at redundancy, I thought that I might as well just go for itself myself.”

Hal, 31, opened Edinburgh Art Shop at 129 Lauriston Place last October, specialising in selling artist’s items like paper, paints, pencils and craft items.

The Old Town location means it is handy for nearby art students, but Hal says both budding and established artists are among her regular customers.

Many come through the doors slightly mystified by the array of equipment – and grateful for her advice on what to buy.

“I’m a bit of an artist myself – although a lazy one,” she laughs. “People come in who have never really done much art before, they fancy trying it and so I help them find what they need.

“Some want to paint in oil, but it’s hard to work with, so we chat and I can show them different paints to try first.

“Others are buying for someone else as a gift, so we talk about what they might need or like to have.”

Conversations often turn to ideas for creations, art groups, meetings and exhibitions – making the Edinburgh Art Shop more than simply a place to buy essentials.

And because the items are laid out for shoppers to see and touch, buying is less risky.

“People can spend a lot of money on something like paper. They want to feel it and make sure it’s right for what they are planning. Even if you know what you want, it’s good to see it before you buy it.”

The shop is located in an area well served by unique traders, so visitors often make the most of their visit to the art shop by browsing in them too.

“The Chinese supermarket is next door, there’s a lovely cafe opposite, in Home Street there’s a couple of nice craft shops, jewellers.

“We’re not that far from vintage shops in the West Port, and the little shops in the Grassmarket and Victoria Street are much nicer than going into the crowds at Princes Street,” adds Hal.

“I think it’s so much nicer to look at stuff and speak to people who can help.”

Selling point that’s unique

THERE aren’t that many small shops that can boast they’ve kept going through thick and thin for 30 years.

But the Chaudhry family’s Harvest Garden started at 58-60 Morningside Road as it meant to go on back in 1983 – working straight through Christmas Day to ensure customers had their chocolate treats, special gifts and stunning flowers.

It wasn’t intentional but the idea received such warm feedback they decided to carry on the Christmas Day delivery tradition – something not even giant retailers contemplate. “We opened on December 17 30 years ago,” recalls joint owner Saqib, 50. “We were so busy straight away that we couldn’t get all our deliveries done by the end of Christmas Eve. So we carried on delivering on Christmas Day. People liked it so much, we’ve kept it going.”

It’s a sign of the unique service the small business is willing to provide. “We work hard to try to find different things for our customers – many can’t believe that we have so many unusual things. And we gift wrap in quite a unique way too. Our customers are very loyal, they come back at birthdays and anniversaries. Some say we are their ‘secret shop’, they want to keep us to themselves!”

Sweets, luxury chocolates – the shop stocks brands which are only otherwise available in London – and sumptuous marzipans share space with exotic flowers and unusual trinkets and gifts.

“You can go to any shopping centre in any city and there is nothing different,” Saqib adds. “But come to Morningside or Bruntsfield – or any other areas with lots of independents – and you go home with completely different purchases that are nicer, more personal and usually less expensive.”

Case for books and shut

EVEN the way Julie Nicoll and partner Russell Ferguson have laid out Analogue Books at 39 Candlemaker Row has a unique feel about it to make shopping a more stress-free experience.

“We lay the books out flat,” Julie explains. “Walk into regular bookshop and usually you just see all the spines of the books and you have to search a bit for what you want.

“But because we lay them out flat, it’s much easy to see them and each book becomes an art object itself. It makes it a much more stimulating environment.”

The shop opened 12 years ago, before the onslaught of Amazon and downloadable books began to bite. But as they specialise in visual art style books – such as design, art, architecture, photography and fashion – rather than popular fiction, the shop has weathered the storm which has seen many other book stores slump.

“The market landscape has changed a lot,” says Julie, 42, with a nod. “We opened the shop to sell the kind of books we were into and had found it difficult to get hold of. Some of what we sell is very accessible, some more specialised.

“But we are here to help people find what they want. We can give some background about the books, who the artist is, for example, if they have any Edinburgh connections, where they studied.

“And it’s a two-way relationship, sometimes shoppers are able to introduce people to us or they want us to order in a book that we weren’t even aware of.

“We are creatures of habit though,” adds Julie. “It’s the easy option to jump in the car and head to the retail park or go to Princes Street and often people don’t want to deviate from that. But there are so many little shops around us that are different. We’re in the middle of what is actually a really great shopping destination.”