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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.