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Monday Memories – Adventures in Retailing

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With the election behind us, and the financial returns lodged with the Returning Officer, we took our week’s holiday in Jersey. Actually a week and a day, because the airport was fog-bound on our planned return date. Back in Cleethorpes our thoughts turned to ways of using my lump sum to produce income. Once again, opening a shop seemed like the sensible thing to do. And, this time we would plan properly.

Looking around at the existing shops in the area I noticed that there was not a quality glass and china shop. Yes, there was a housewares section within a department store in Grimsby, and a number of cheap souvenir shops on Cleethorpes sea front. But very few places where the discerning buyer could obtain a good quality dinner service or a set of vases or ornaments. In the library I found a Mintel report on that market sector and discovered that the size of the market was such that reaching just 10% would produce a satisfactory return. Margins were good. Next I contacted suppliers, most of whom proved to be eager to have a new outlet in the district.

Seeking a suitable premises, we found a unit in a recently converted building. Owned by a kitchen design outfit, the ground floor showroom had been partitioned into 4 retail units, the kitchen showroom confined to the upper floor. One unit had already been let to a hairdresser. We discussed the possibility of our taking one of the other units, pointing out that our proposed business would complement the kitchen designer’s showroom. He could supply our display units and we could display some of our wares in his showroom.

Image depicts china objects in glass display cases in a retail setting
Our dream that never materialised. Image from https://www.woburn-china.com/See-our-shop.html

He agreed and took that unit off the market. Time passed during which we heard nothing and then, with a strong sense of deja vu, we learned that his scheme to divide the ground floor and let it in units, intended to overcome his own financial difficulties, had failed in that endeavour and the whole building was now up for sale. It was unlikely that the new owner, when found, would accept us as tenants. The most likely use for the site was as a fast food outlet. In due course that is what it became.

We resumed our search for suitable premises. Just around the corner from us was a shop that had for many years been a dairy. Lately it was occupied by a young chef who made up gourmet ready meals which he sold from the shop, alongside cheeses, charcouterie and fine wines. He was looking for someone to take over the retail side of the business so that he could concentrate on production in an industrial unit he’d leased in Grimsby. He had won a potentially lucrative commercial catering contract but would continue to supply his gourmet ready meals to the shop and would introduce us to his suppliers. The proposition looked interesting. The up front investment was much less than the china shop. We would be taking on an already successful business. What could go wrong?

We took over the business in the autumn and turnover was steady. In the lead up to Christmas we were amazed by the demand for specialist cheeses and other luxury products. Christmas Eve was chaotic with both of us working frantically to keep up with the long line of customers queuing for service. We expected January to be a let down after that. What we had not anticipated was the original owner losing his catering contract and closing his Grimsby unit. Our leading line, our USP, disappeared over night. No more gourmet ready meals.

We found a supplier for such things as quiches and cooked smoked meats, but sales were slow. We were paying the bills from our own resources, not from the business’ income. We distributed leaflets around the district – something I was used to doing as part of my political endeavours – but it produced few results. I ran a series of small advertisements in the Grimsby Telegraph, extolling the virtues of different varieties of cheese.

We thought about relocating to a more central site – one with greater “footfall” – but rent and rates would be much higher. We would need to generate much more turn-over just to meet overheads. And that level of business, if achieved, would require us to hire an extra hand. It was an impossible situation. By the autumn of 1988 it was obvious we needed to close the business. But we would have to find another tenant or continue paying rent even though the business was closed.

A woman answered our advertisement. She was making and selling cakes from her own kitchen but needed larger premises. We still had the kitchen that the chef had originally used to produce his gourmet meals. It seemed ideal for her. She had some government funding under a scheme which paid a basic income to unemployed people wishing to start out as sole traders.

Image depicts a small refrigerated display cabinet, such as might be found in a butcher's shop or deli
A refrigerated display cabinet like the one that disappeared from our shop. Image found at http://www.nisbets.ie

She was only there for a few weeks before she fell behind with the rent. Then one of the refrigerated display cabinets disappeared, replaced by a newer one. I told her she couldn’t do that, that the unit was mine and that she must pay for it.

A few weeks later I had an appointment with my dentist in Grimsby. On the way there I spotted my refrigerated display unit for sale in the window of a refrigeration specialist. He had taken it in part-exchange for the different unit now in the shop. To be fair, he accepted my story and paid me for the unit. It was now up to him to chase the woman for his money.

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5 Comments

  1. Sha'Tara says:

    Boy you guys really tried hard! You’ve just listed most of the reasons why, despite promptings and dreams I chose to remain shy of the retail business. I realized long ago that if one went into the service side of business, even with a modest investment in vehicle and tools, one would never run out of work. There’s always something needs maintaining, serviced, repaired or replaced! Here I am at 72 with the same investment basically run off my feet if I respond to every call. Hard to accept peoples’ disappointment when I say, sorry but I am too busy and pass them on to someone on my list of back-ups. Of course you have to not mind being a bit of a gypsy as some work can take you away from home for days, even weeks. But then you know all about work that takes you away from home, and for much longer than a few days, or weeks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Retail is a tough business and very sensitive to market conditions. That woman seemed dishonest which is disappointing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Léa says:

    Beautiful cups and teapots says this diehard coffee addict. However, I can still appreciate them.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. franklparker says:

    Thanks ladies for your interest. Food is the worst of all to be in retailing – fashion might go out of date in a few months, most “hardware” has a more or less indefinite shelf life. But food spoils in days. If you don’t sell it you ave to chuck it – or give it to a good cause. There was another factor came into play in the late eighties in the UK – the supermarkets began expanding their deli-counters and chilled food aisles.

    Like

  5. Phil Huston says:

    I love it when the real rascal in such an episode is found to be afoul. And cheers to the refrigeration man back in the 80’s when “the right thing” hadn’t been flummoxed into a tag line for “Sorry, not my problem.”
    Retail has had a strange history of blowing with the wind. What’s trendy and acceptable one day is yeasterday’s news the next. Be glad you missed the fine china shop. And suppliers and tenuous contracts hanging by a thread…It seems the only way to run your own business is to be in charge of all off it from sawdust to till, or be such a distributor as to have leverage over vendors to see it your way or step aside. Ahhh…Banks know that most, even franchise operations save fast food, and even some of those, are good for 5 years, tops. I knew a banker, she said “Bring me anything but another Mexican restaurant, designer burger joint or health food place and I’m in.”

    Liked by 1 person

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