Celebrating ten years in Harrogate

Ten and a half years ago I found myself pounding the streets of Harrogate town centre. The lease was coming to an end on our lovely shop in Sowerby Bridge and we had made a plan in line with Nev’s early retirement from college, to move lock, stock and barrel from West Yorkshire to North Yorkshire. I had lived here before in the nineties but it felt very different coming back to find a space for a business as well as a new home.
I had made an appointment to see an empty unit – it was too big and needed too much work doing to it– other units were just too expensive. I nearly fell through the floor at some of the prices. I also wasn’t sure about the some of the locations – a few metres can count for a lot in terms of level of footfall. Feeling a little bit like our dream was slipping through my fingers, I walked down to the Conference Centre and up Parliament Street. It was then that I saw it – a little jewel of an empty unit with a to let sign nestled at the bottom of the street. “I think I’ve found it!” I said to Nev on the phone. “I can tell by the tone of your voice” he said. “The rent is four times higher than what we are paying now and the business rates are only 25 times higher!” The phone went silent. In comparison to what I had seen earlier this was “cheap” but I knew this was a huge financial risk and leap. We were moving from a town with only a handful of shops, where we knew our customers and had built our business up from scratch into a destination shop, to a town with a lot more footfall but where we would be a very small, unknown fish in a very big pond. There was a high chance we would be eaten alive…
But on the basis we had taken the risk before – opening a shop in Sowerby Bridge with no retail experience and when there was only one other fashion shop – we took the plunge. Two appointments later with the letting agent and we were on our way. Or so I thought. Negotiating leases isn’t easy when you have letting agents, managing agents, solicitors and a landlord in London to communicate with. When you mix all of that with the constraints of a listed building and local objections to the planning permission for our sign, we had to move up a level from being naive.
So after four months of negotiation and planning, a solid month of building alterations and decoration, and a day of interviewing for weekend staff in our empty main window (!), we opened our doors on Saturday, the 22nd of March 2008. The sign arrived that morning – it was the wrong colour but it went up. Looking back on that day, it was all a little bit of a blur. Friends, family and even the builders came to support us and we managed to sell some jewellery! We were still living in West Yorkshire and running the shop in Sowerby Bridge. We had no idea of what the future was going to bring but the two of us had done it and we were so excited. It was to take us another full year to move personally – so the commuting and staffing was more than challenging during this time – but we had made the change. And the sign gradually changed to the right colour in the light…
And change is what we sometimes don’t notice until we look back and reflect. When we opened our neighbours at that time were, on one side, the fashion house Valpiani, which went all the way down to where Hoxton North first opened its coffee house – this was Valpiani’s shoe section – and, on the other side, Flares nightclub, which went on to being the Restaurant Bar and Grill and is now Gino’s. Emma Somerset, Alberts and Saks were on the opposite side of the road. The Japanese Shop and Wesley-Barrel were at the front of the Westminster Arcade. Valpiani moved and has now gone. Hoxton North came and relocated. The shops Exit, Schuberts and Paper Tiger have now gone. The opposite side of the road from Alberts up to MultiYork was renovated and became a row of empty units to let around 4 years ago. Since then, Jamies and other units have come and gone in this space and only Nandos is left standing before the new Mojo bar opens. I am full of admiration for businesses like Rhodes Wood and Peter Gotthard, which have stood the test of time whilst local movement on the street has changed trade and footfall.
So what else has changed over the ten years? Bettys, the Turkish Baths, the Conference Centre and the Royal Hall on our street are still landmarks for the town and sought out by visitors. The Conference Centre had a huge impact on our business when we first opened. However, this has changed dramatically over the last ten years. We cannot rely on extra footfall from conferences to boost our trade any more but take additional business from the Centre as a welcome bonus.
Our customer base has changed. More than 50% of our customers who buy from the shop are visitors to the town and our online business is a growing and now a very significant part of the business. A big part of our day is spent dealing with customer enquiries virtually, and not face to face. When we first moved, social media and feedback were non-existent. Now our daily workload involves dealing with two email boxes, dealing with enquiries over the phone and both posting on and responding to messages on facebook, Instagram and twitter. We have always prided ourselves on our customer service. This requires so much investment but is the key way in which we differentiate ourselves as an independent. Working towards excellent customer service is hard but online it can be very hard. To a virtual customer you are not an independent with a small staff team, but an online resource where there should be 24/7 support. Service expectations are high, patience is low and if you are not around to respond someone else will. What’s more, if you have a bad day or put a foot wrong, you have to be prepared to face the consequences on social media, trip advisor or by email! Giving feedback from behind a computer is now so easy and often unforgiving….So we are now no longer just facing the challenge of surviving within a local economy but within a huge online market.
As a retailer you can’t control external circumstances and we have had to ride the storm many times over the past ten years. Sometimes these storms are physical – weather is a key influencer on business – but external forces that have impacted on us have ranged from major sporting events happening on the key trading day of a Saturday, when people socialise differently or roads are closed, to political and economic factors such as the fall in the value of the pound when we buy lots of stock in euros. Overheads are on the rise, physical footfall in the town is decreasing, there are lots of empty retail units in the town and our business rates are now 45 times higher than they were in Sowerby Bridge!  And of course being ten years older and no spring chickens we have health issues to contend with. The future is full of challenges..
So should we have taken that risk ten years ago? Well, we still love what we do. We learn every day. We work harder than ever. We have had to change our buying habits in line with our selling experience. We are never complacent. We love the products we sell and we get so much satisfaction from interacting with our customers and products. We love creating a unique environment to shop in and it means so much to us when customers say how much they love our shop or that it is their favourite shop. We are very proud to be still standing and selling some of the brands that we started out with in Sowerby Bridge. Indeed, customers still travel from Sowerby Bridge to shop with us now. So, despite all the ups and downs, it is a resounding yes. We are glad we took the risk.
As we celebrate our tenth year in Harrogate today, it is very important for me to thank all of our customers, right from when we first started out in Sowerby Bridge. Thank you for coming along this journey with us – we owe the fact that we are still here to you. In an ever-changing retail environment it is now more important than ever to shop local and support independents. We are still striving to make Bijouled a personal and magical place to shop. And to anyone wanting to do the same, it won’t be easy, but in the words of George Elliot, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

Georgina, 22nd March 2018

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