This is part 4 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.
I’ve tried to write down what I think different readers might be able to do about this situation this includes business owners, residents and the wider business community.
Look in the mirror first
When it really comes down to it as business owners we need to first look internally at what we do. If I am brutally honest I could look at many of the hospitality businesses that have closed and suggest some issues within their operations that may have had a bigger impact on their closure than general trading conditions in Harrogate. I’m not afraid to say that they could look at my business and likely point out some things we should be considering in terms of improving too – send me them if you like: email@example.com.
It’s very difficult to change external factors, certainly in the short-term, so the best results will come from addressing the areas over which you have direct control.
Ask for feedback
If business is going wrong you need to work out why, your customers are going to be a big source of information and not just the ones who are still coming in.
We are always trying to engage with our customers, asking what we can do better and trying to improve. If you aren’t sure about how to put something like that in place I wrote a piece about what we do and you can find it here.
If you have an email list why not send out a survey and ask the difficult questions like ‘Why do you no longer shop with us?’ – I’m going to do this next week for Baltzersen’s.
Compete where you can win
Competing on price is very difficult for most indies. I would consider other options such quality, service, experience and knowledge as easier ways to set your business apart.
We are also smaller and more nimble. You can react to trends, develop new changing products and try things out on a small scale.
You have a story – tell it
One of the things that really makes indies different is the people that established them and those that work in them. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows this story, in fact most people don’t so you need to have it available and remind people of it.
There are lots of ways to do this via social media, website, printed literature, through staff training, video, networking, PR, blogging and endless other options.
People often mention to me upon meeting that they have seen Baltzersen’s and Norse in the Harrogate Advertiser a lot, we actually aren’t in it that much anymore but when we were getting some help from Cicada Communications they did an excellent job of doing that. If local PR coverage is valuable to you then why not get in touch.
Alternatively if you struggle to write but want to communicate your story via your own website or in print then we currently use The Content Market to help us with that – it’s really helped our SEO.
Communicate who you are and what that means to your customer from their perspective.
Don’t Let the Side Down
Don’t be a bad indie – that’s one of our biggest challenges and it’s what chains thrive on.
For example people know that if they go into an indie coffee shop or cafe the coffee could range from being amazing to undrinkable. If we deliver bad experiences it makes people think twice about going indie the second time. If they go to Costa I doubt it’s going to be that amazing but it’ll at least be reasonable, that’s all the chains have to do – be consistently average or just above average. Anything outside this range costs them money.
One area that the Harrogate independent scene seriously falls behind the likes of Leeds and York is in collaboration. Getting together to create interesting events, supporting each other and promoting the scene as a whole rather than just our individual businesses.
Working together you can achieve results like York’s Bishy Road who came to national attention winning High Street of the Year in 2015 and have a buoyant indie scene that has become a destination outside of the primary shopping area. They hold events, fund winter lights, promote each other via Social Media and publish a monthly newspaper.
The Leeds Indie scene sees a lot of collaboration and is championed by Leeds Indie Food who also oversee the annual Leeds Indie Food Festival as well as a new weekly Street Food line up at North Brew Co. Independent Leeds also exist to promote indie businesses through a guide and membership card and again have a significant social media footprint.
A strong retail offer in town increases footfall and helps drive the hospitality sector so we need to work closer with our colleagues in retail. Despite reporting around the recent list ranking Harrogate as a ‘vital shopping centre’ which was misrepresented by the Yorkshire Post as Harrogate being the “North’s top shopping destination”, those of us who live here know that retailers are struggling and the range of shops pales in comparison with the larger centres nearby. Our indie sector still adds some variation to what can be found elsewhere but we need to support each other.
Many of us share common customers and don’t compete with one another so why don’t we tell our audiences about each others businesses and we could likely both benefit?
Should we be running some sort of marketing meet up where businesses can partner up with one another for mutual gain?
If you’d be interested in being part of that get in touch with me and we’ll organise something: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ask for Help
If you are struggling with an element of your business, or multiple elements, then ask someone for help. You could turn to another indie business owner who you think is getting things right in that regard, approach somewhere like the Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce who may be able to signpost you to someone or engage an expert.
I had some business coaching last year which helped me define more closely what my business should be about. It made me consider plans for the future and most importantly made me realise that my financial control systems or lack thereof were wildly insufficient for the size of the business and were going to leave me in serious trouble. We had already employed someone in-house to carry out the book keeping function, we changed our accounting software, changed our accountant to someone with more of a hospitality specialism and have been integrating our systems more efficiently. It remains a work in progress but 12 months on we are in a far better position than we were.
You’d be surprised how much other business owners and perhaps even your own customers would be willing to help you, especially if your business holds a special place in someones heart.
As residents of Harrogate we have choices to make with respect to the businesses we support; it doesn’t happen once or in one area, it’s happening multiple times each day across lots of aspects of our lives. Our decisions can have a huge impact.
No-one can go indie all of the time, most of us can probably only spend a fraction of our monthly income with indies but it all counts.
In certain areas of your life you can choose to entirely avoid chains or just do what you can, if enough of us do it then it will have an impact.
Here’s what we do:
We don’t use chain coffee shops or cafes ever, this decision is based around quality as well as beliefs.
We use supermarkets. We have young kids and run 2 businesses – we get our weekly shop delivered and for us that convenience wins.
We tend to eat in independent restaurants but if we’re meeting up with friends or family we might visit a chain for ease and because turning up to eat at 5pm with 6 adults 5 kids and 3 buggies isn’t always viable at an indie!
We would go to an indie bar for a drink, because we think they have the best range of drinks and knowledge about them. It’s not something we do a lot.
I tend to buy books from Amazon because I read mostly on Kindle.
There are lots of other decisions we make each day that probably could go either way, I think it’s really helpful to make more conscious decisions and consider the implications.
The Harrogate Business Improvement District (BID)
I don’t want to talk too much about a BID scheme in this blog but I firmly believe that we need to have one in Harrogate. It’s so important that we compete with the towns and cities around us to remain attractive to our own residents and visitors alike.
A BID is a business led group that manage a fund that is created by a levy on business rates (usually 1-4%) that is paid by all businesses within the boundaries of the scheme.
The role of the BID is to allocate funds to projects that will improve a defined commercial area and they are voted in for 5 year terms.
It is money that is raised locally and spent locally to try and deliver tangible change.
BIDs already exist in Leeds, York, Northallerton and Skipton.
There is a plan underfoot to begin the process of exploring a BID for Harrogate, but more information will be released as it becomes available. If you would like to read more about BIDs in general you can do so here.
The Leeds BID has carried out significant projects such as securing events such as the MOBO awards and BBC Sports Personality of the Year. They introduced ambassadors (the ones dressed up with bowler hats), specialist street cleaning teams, art installations including the Athena Rising Project (pictured below) and a lot more. They have attracted a lot of very positive PR that is positioning Leeds as competing with Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham in terms of exciting places to live and work outside of London. More info on the Leeds BID can be found here.
I attended an event this week at the Convention Centre called ‘Engage with you Convention Centre’. It talked about the rebranding from HIC Yorkshire to Harrogate Convention Centre and laid out very briefly some future plans.
Some of the attitudes from businesses didn’t chime quite right with me as people were getting a bit aggressive and seemed to be blaming the Convention Centre for not doing enough to specifically support their business or business sector. Leader of HBC Richard Cooper quite reasonably explained that the convention centre exists to bring value to the local economy as a whole. The venue is vast and retains significant capacity to handle more events if we as a town can attract them.
One of the frustrations from some of the people in the room was the failure of businesses locally to engage with the specific conferences as they arrive. A sense that too few people in town know what conferences are on and when and that this negatively affects the welcome we can give to conference attendees as a wider town. Certainly in my business we aren’t quite as on top of knowing what conferences are on as we’d like.
I’m going to make an effort to do more to welcome convention centre visitors and I think it’s something we should explore further as a business community.
So that’s it so far on the ideas front, but I’ve wrapped the whole series of blogs up in the final post: Indies in Harrogate Pt. 5: The Summary