Indies in Harrogate Pt.3: Who else’s fault is it?

This is part 3 of a 5 part blog about the situation for independent businesses in Harrogate as we head into the summer of 2017.  If you’d like to head back to the first post click here.

We’ve given the council a kicking (fairly or not) but there are more groups to consider, let’s have a look:

2.  Landlords

“Landlords in Harrogate are just greedy and they are forcing businesses out….”

Some landlords are indeed ‘greedy’….well, they want to get the very best price they can for their asset which I guess also makes them fairly normal.

I am lucky that my landlord (hope she’s reading!) is a kind and benevolent soul, and has a long-term view on our relationship in her property.  On the other hand, I have heard horror stories.

Rent isn’t cheap but personally I would say it’s unlikely to be primary factor that is causing so many indies to fail especially since the commercial rental market is a little weaker in Harrogate right now than it has been in the past.

3. Residents and Visitors

“The people of Harrogate and visitors just don’t get behind the indies, they’d rather spend their money elsewhere”

Shouldn’t the residents of Harrogate and visitors be more supportive of indie businesses?

The honest answer to this question isn’t a particularly palatable one for operators of small indie businesses but I think it needs to be said – No.

Expecting customers to be loyal to a business based purely on geography and ownership structure is not a strategy for long-term success.  It can have an effect and plenty of brands like Yorkshire Tea, PlusNet and Harrogate Water benefit from their association with a particular area (in this case our very own Yorkshire) but even then I’m sure they would point out the specific benefits and problem solving qualities of their products as playing a part too.

The simple reality is that no-one owes any indie business owner a living.  If what we offer doesn’t attract enough people to make it sustainable then it’s on us, the owners, to make changes to secure a big enough slice of the market that we can continue to exist.  It’s not the fault of the people of Harrogate and it’s not the fault of other indies or even chains that are doing a better job, offering a cheaper price or who have a clearer idea of what their market wants.

We all need to be better.

4. The Convention Centre

“There aren’t any conferences any more….”

I  haven’t lived in Harrogate all that long (6 years) but I speak with a plenty of people who have and they regularly hark back to a bygone era where there were conferences all the time and the town was consistently mobbed.

Times have changed.  The convention centre has been struggling to compete with the investment put up by other venues in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Belfast and others.  This isn’t going to stop but the convention centre this week communicated part of their plans to the business community in Harrogate and asked us to get more involved with what they do.

I’d put attendance at that meeting below 60 people and my conclusion would therefore be that businesses aren’t that bothered about helping the convention centre.  They see it as a one way relationship.

It poses the question; why should the convention centre break it’s back trying to help us?

5.  Other Shopping Centres

We live in Harrogate and nothing we do will ever change our geography so we have to accept that the siren call of York and Leeds will always be there tempting residents of Harrogate Borough to go and visit them to do their shopping.  The out of town developments around York combined with what is still a strong city centre retail offer is a challenge.  The new developments in Leeds including the Trinity Centre and the new Victoria Gate complex add further pressure.

It is the job of the people running other towns, cities and retail parks to attract visitors, there is no point moaning about it.  Harrogate as a destination has some incredible advantages, we need to market ourselves better.

Statistics on footfall in the town centre reported on by the Victoria Centre do show a worrying decline in footfall in Harrogate so this is a concern, although average spends have increased so that is a positive development.

6.  The Chains

Absolutely the chains are having an effect, that’s what they’re designed to do.

“These chains have huge marketing machines and lots of cash – indies can’t compete….”

The first half of this statement is true, if you believe the bit after the dash and you own an indie business you are seriously in trouble…….

We can join together or work alone but we can compete.  No-one is going to tell you how to carve out your bit of the market so we need to work it out ourselves and help one another where we can.

 7.  The Government

Hospitality is traditionally a relatively low paid industry where wages are the single biggest cost.   Since 2015 minimum wage increases have outstripped national levels of wage growth significantly and this is set to continue with the National Living Wage (NLW) reaching £9 by 2020.  This will be an increase of 34% since 2015.

I wrote about the NLW  when it was introduced in April 2016 and  suggested it would be tough for small business owners and I stand by that assessment.

The next three increases are significant and it would not surprise me if some owners are looking ahead, seeing these and working out that their operation simply isn’t going to be viable.

When you add in the administrative burden (and cost) added by workplace pensions, RTI submissions and taking tax digital; over the next few years there are additional challenges on top of wage increases.

Summary

There are numerous challenges for indies in Harrogate, as there are for indies the whole country over.

Some can be affected by making changes at the  business level, others may need to be tackled by a group of businesses or may require the whole business community to come together and work towards a solution together with politicians and other stakeholders.

What I am certain about is that action needs to be taken now across the board or the current slide towards a town dominated by chains will continue and that will make Harrogate a less desirable place to live, work and shop.

We’re not done yet!  Now we have the situation and who might be to blame for it (not that apportioning blame helps anyone).  Next is what do we do about it?  I’ve got a few ideas in the next blog here: Indies in Harrogate Pt 4: What can we do?

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris D says:

    Hi Paul

    Such an interesting and insightful blog. Dispelled a few myths. My view as a resident of 7 years and a passionate indie supporter is to offer an alternative solution, it appears to me that you are all chasing the same dream in what is described by estate agents as the ‘desirable south side of Harrogate’ your leap of faith will be to create an indie scene in a new area- the unfashionable north side? A smaller version of Manchesters Northern Quarter. However you may struggle to get as many middle class mums chomping on your waffles with their kids initially – however if your faith in your business is true – they may follow you and your indie friends. The cold truth is you are all chasing the same pound in the same swimming pool.

    1. Paul says:

      Hi Chris,

      I’ll be honest I’m not 100% sure if you’re mocking me but I’m going to reply as if you aren’t.

      As a businesses owner and an optimist I can’t agree that we are ‘chasing the same pound in the same swimming pool’.

      I believe that if we work together within the indie community and with other bodies that are able to have an effect int he town then we can improve the experience that everyone has when they visit Harrogate. The effect of an improved experience for locals or visitors should be to make Harrogate a more desirable place to eat, shop and spend time – that in turn means we are turning that pound into something more valuable like £1.20.

      I also think that if we can be more intelligent about the way we operate as an indie sector we can make ourselves more competitive, so whilst we might be in the same pool we can be more successful within that environment.

      Here’s hoping.

      Regards

      Paul.

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