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Monday Memories – Adventures in Retailing

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.

Life Changing Events

A few days ago Stevie Turner posted on this subject, taking her cue from an earlier post by Colline Kook-Chun. It inspired me to think about some of the events that influenced the direction my life has taken.

reunion-of-giants

  1. My father’s death in action in 1943. Had he survived the war, who knows what my life would have been like? I would probably have been brought up as a Londoner, since both parents were from there. I certainly would not have gone, at age 10¾ to a boarding school established for boys who had lost one or both parents. The school still exists, although the majority of pupils these days pay expensive fees. I shall be back there later this year celebrating 60 years since I left. Thanks to modern technology, many of my contemporaries communicate regularly with each other despite being scattered in different parts of the world.
  2. Meeting my wife in the summer of 1961. I was 19, she 16. I proposed in the early hours of December 27th, as I walked her home from the Boxing Night dance. We kept our engagement secret until her 17th birthday in June 1962 and were married in September 1963.
  3. Discovering, in the spring of 1965 as we moved into our first new house, that she was pregnant. We had not planned to start a family quite so soon but our son brought a new phase in our lives as a family unit and, as you will discover below, led to us coming to live in Ireland.
  4. Joining the staff at the Engineering HQ of a large corporation in the summer of 1968. That took me to South Africa and eventually to East Lincolnshire. Altogether I worked for over 18 years for that corporation and the pension I paid into now provides about 1/3rd of my annual income. It also led to:
  5. Being elected to Humberside County Council in May 1985. I was one of 4 Liberals elected that year. The other two parties had 35 and 36 members so we held the ‘balance of power’, able to veto any proposal from either of the other parties. I like to think we used this power wisely. It was certainly extremely time consuming because, in order to do the job, we had to be represented on every committee, sub-committee and working party.

    humber-bridge

    The Humber Bridge. Image via Scunthorpe Telegraph

    My employer was extraordinarily generous with allowing me time off to do this, but after a year and a half I was offered the choice: cut down on your council activities or take redundancy. The redundancy offer was generous and I accepted, having visions of a new career as a writer and politician. After working, unpaid, for the party in the run-up to the 1987 General Election I needed to find some alternative source of income which takes us to:

  6. Our shop. We decided that, since Freda had worked all of her life in shops, latterly as manager of a charity shop, we should set up our own shop. I would look after the administration whilst she worked ‘front of house’. I researched the market and decided that Cleeethorpes could benefit from having a quality glass, china and giftware outlet. A unit was available in a building belonging to a kitchen design specialist who had his show-room upstairs. This seemed like an excellent fit. I talked to potential suppliers, put together a business plan and everything looked promising until the building went on sale. The owner’s plan to increase his income by creating and letting units had not worked out. Any thought that the new owner might still be interested in having us as a tenant was dashed when planning permission to open a fast food outlet was applied for.

    The next premises we looked at meant a complete change of plan. It was a moderately successful food retailer. The owner, a chef, prepared a range of chilled ready-meals in a kitchen at the back which he sold in the shop, alongside the usual deli-type goods and speciality foods. His recipes had been so successful that he had taken a small factory unit in Grimsby and wanted someone to take on the retail business, with him continuing to supply the popular ready meals. We opened in September and did great business in the run up to Christmas. Then the chef lost a big contract and had to close the unit so we lost our main supplier. We struggled on for the next few months but the risk involved in food retailing is enormous and we just could not compete with the supermarkets who were starting to develop their own deli counters and chilled ready meals.

    I got a part-time job writing business profiles for a regional business magazine but in the May 1989 election I lost my council seat and returned to my original career as an Engineer.

  7. Our son’s marriage in 1993. His wife is Irish and in due course they moved to Dublin with their daughter. So, when considering retirement options in 2006, moving to Ireland to be near them was a ‘no brainer’. More than eleven years on we are still here, enjoying life in a small Irish country town where we have met many new friends, some through the writing group to which I belong, and some through the support centre for people touched by cancer where we both volunteer.

At the end of Stevie’s post are two questions, originally posed by Colline. Here they are, with my answers:

  1. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s… a Ryanair jet bringing home the owner of the Grand National winning horse and offering free drinks to all the passengers
  2. What music do you like: Jazz, Folk, Rock, Blues, Broadway/West End Musical scores.

Thanks, Colline and Stevie, for the inspiration. I wonder how many of my followers will be tempted to follow suit?