Now Then supports local, independent businesses. There are good value-based reasons for this position. In a world that is ever more commodified, independent traders offer a more human scale of transaction, where a personalised service is the outcome of a conversation between people, not the result of a search engine algorithm. Supporting local traders also […]

Now Then supports local, independent businesses. There are good value-based reasons for this position. In a world that is ever more commodified, independent traders offer a more human scale of transaction, where a personalised service is the outcome of a conversation between people, not the result of a search engine algorithm.

Supporting local traders also makes sound economic sense. Friends of the Earth have calculated that in the food sector, for every £1 spent with a local business at least 50p remains in the local economy. For supermarkets that figure can be as low as 5p. The exact figures vary in other sectors but the principle remains – buying from Record Collector contributes significantly more to Sheffield’s economy than buying from Amazon.

Sheffield has a dynamic independent sector, ranging from one person start-ups to significant businesses which have scaled up over time but which remain rooted in and proud of their Sheffield heritage. There is a lot of good news, but trading conditions are tough, not to say brutal, in some sectors.

On behalf of Now Then, I have been talking to Sheffield’s independent traders in the food, drink, entertainment, retail and printing sectors. The breadth of Sheffield’s independent sector encompasses a wide range of views, but some key themes have emerged. This article focuses on issues for independents in the city centre and independent restaurants. Subsequent articles will look at issues for independents in other sectors across the city, and some of the positive developments and collaborations already taking place. Over the coming months the aim is to develop a ‘manifesto’ listing some key developments which could really make a difference for Sheffield’s independent traders.

For many independent retail or restaurant businesses in the city centre, the fiasco of the Sevenstone development has been a major issue. Whilst few (if any) independents were likely to have been located within the new retail quarter, the increased footfall would have improved trading conditions for the city’s ‘independent quarter’ around Division Street. In reality, the poor quality retail offer in the city centre has resulted in the city not only failing to attract people from the wider region, but also an increasing exodus of Sheffield shoppers to the more vibrant city centres of Leeds and Manchester.

The developments around Division Street over the last few years highlight some of the issues that need to be addressed. There are still many interesting independent shops in the area, but their numbers are falling. In their place, national coffee chains, supermarkets and, most recently, a betting shop have opened.

Sheffield Council is hoping that the New Retail Quarter will open in 2019. If the Council relies on this alone to revitalise the city centre – assuming it actually happens – there may not be an independent quarter left by 2019 to complement the new development. The alternative is to recognise that nurturing a vibrant independent sector is a far more immediate and achievable means of developing Sheffield as an attractive, distinctive retail destination.

The Council doesn’t have much money but a lot can be achieved by a clear vision and joined-up thinking as follows: a planning policy that prioritises independent outlets in key areas of the city with the aim of supporting and promoting distinctive independent quarters, not just around Division Street but in other areas; lower parking costs; more security to ensure a safe late night shopping experience; and a positive approach to supporting regular events which will attract potential customers into these areas.

For Sheffield’s independent restaurants, one of the biggest challenges has been the rise of a cheap eating and voucher culture. Independents, using locally sourced ingredients and cooking to order, cannot compete on price against national chains offering large discounts. But while price is a key factor, being a David does have advantages when battling Goliaths, as Malcolm Gladwell has recently argued in his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. There are enough success stories across Sheffield to show that it is possible for independents to compete by being flexible, responding quickly to changing demands, and developing a distinctive offer. Whilst chains generate repeat business through vouchers, independents are able to build relationships with customers which generate a real, personal loyalty. Favourite independent cafes and restaurants are ‘ours’ in a way that just doesn’t apply to national coffee and pizza chains.

Next time – issues for city-wide independents, collaboration between independents and procurement policies. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts, ideas or comments, please get in touch.

David Edwards.