The independent shops that make Winchester so special
PUBLISHED: 11:18 16 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:18 16 July 2018
We are a nation of shopkeepers, but is the shop dying? We head to Winchester's High Street
This spring Winchester saw a number of independents shut up shop: among them Wild Sports, a family-run business which opened in Winchester in the 1950s; Jane McIntyre Design, a glam interiors boutique which has gone online; Justice jewellers on Parchment Street; and one of my favourites, Creative Crafts.
A fixture for some 35 years on The Square, in Creative Crafts’ clearance sale I found myself panic buying charcoal, cartridge paper and canvases. I was not alone, and all of us bewailing its loss. This was not so much a shop as a community; with a wall covered with information on local classes and advice from assistants. I don’t see how that can be replicated online, yet a member of staff explained that sales were dipping each year as the internet creamed off a percentage of buyers, while rents and business rates were rising steeply. It was unsustainable. Creative Crafts will reappear – but this time as a market stall on the High Street. One chap muttered that he hoped the premises didn’t turn into yet another bloody café – voicing an opinion I hear time and again.
Personally, I like Winchester’s café culture and applaud the success of local independents such as Cabinet Rooms and Josie’s on Jewry Street, Rawberry on St George’s Street, Coffee Lab and Caracoli on the High Street (to name but a few). After all, the survival of the High Street is dependent on experience and service, and cafes contribute to both.
For the way we shop has changed. In many ways big names are more vulnerable to online shopping than local independents, who are often able to deliver a more personal service. Brands that have disappeared off Winchester’s High Street include River Island (replaced by Tesco Express), Monsoon (now Pret a Manger), Next (to become a Travelodge) and LK Bennett (replaced by The Ivy).
Success stories include family businesses that have adapted to the changing retail environment. On Winchester’s High Street these include Closs & Hamblin, one of a small group of home and haberdashery stores that was rebranded two years ago with a refocus on service and experiences, including workshops. Similarly, Jeremy France Jewellers, who set up shop in Winchester 28 years ago, attribute their success to customer service. They’ve grown to become an award-winning business with an international reputation, a workshop on-site and a team that includes jewellery designers and goldsmiths.
Retail experts suggest for our High Streets to thrive, artisans and independents need to be encouraged and supported. Such as Sass & Edge, a womenswear boutique with smart, casual and stylish pieces, which was opened ten months ago on Southgate Street by friends Rachel Hunt and Sally Gott. They enthuse: “We have had such a positive, warm response from customers since we opened. Winchester shoppers love independent businesses.
“The main frustrations for small businesses in Winchester are that they can’t afford to be in the higher footfall areas due to crippling rents and rates, so they need to start up in secondary locations to make it affordable. This in turn means they have to work harder at driving footfall to their location.
“Help for new independent businesses could take the form of reassessing business rates for smaller businesses to encourage them into the city and rents could be capped for an introductory period to allow start-ups to become established.
“There are some really fabulous independent retailers in Winchester and they can offer so much more than the bigger chains. At Sass & Edge we get to know our customers and build relationships with them to offer a really personal service.
“We also go to great lengths to source smaller designer brands from countries round the world, so our customer is getting something different.”
Long-established P&G Wells bookshop has been operating from College Street for nearly 300 years. With book displays on gateleg tables and faded rugs across old floorboards, it has the appearance of a bookshop on Dygon Alley for the Harry Potter generation. Managing Director Crispin Drummond says the appearance of a parlour is deliberate - it is about inviting people to pick books up.
Just along from Winchester College and the house where Jane Austen died, P&G Wells is busy with tourists as well as pupils and locals. At its heart is a traditional bindery that looks like something out of Dickens, but if you imagine P&G Wells hasn’t responded to 21st century retail expectations, you would be wrong. This shop succeeds in competing not only with the internet, but with two Waterstones in the city. Upstairs is an impressive children’s department with story time area (drop-in sessions Wednesday and Saturday mornings for the young and very young) and a variety of services includes hosting children’s poetry competitions, book groups and author events.
Crispin reflects: “It’s all to do with supplying what customers’ need. Shops are no longer storehouses of goods on shelves with sales assistants standing around waiting to respond to customers’ questions.”
Eclectic Hound, an independent outfitter stocking “men’s and ladies’ apparel, antiques and oddities” is run by husband and wife Alice and James Duffield. They started with stalls in the Art & Design Market and Antiques & Vintage Market before moving into a shop on Southgate Street and graduating to The Square in search of more space a few months ago.
Alice and James comment: “The trend on Winchester’s High Street is food and drink. I think to stimulate retail growth in Winchester we need to move beyond the focus on independents and look to encourage small and medium enterprise. There is a view that you are either an independent or a corporate retailer. Retail is more multifaceted than that… Most of us shop with big retailers; it doesn’t mean we can’t support small businesses as well.
“When I hear soundbites on the subject of shop closures I am frustrated that authority figures tend to respond by being defensive; to find a solution you have to accept there is a problem. One of the biggest problems in Winchester is that most central units do not qualify for small business rate relief. We are a small business not located on the High Street yet we are not eligible for rate relief.”
Alice has recently become involved with The Independents Advisory Group launched by Winchester BID at the end of April 2018 which aims to put in place a programme of campaigns and projects specifically supporting independent businesses. The group is headed up by Cat Brandwood of Toscanaccio (on Parchment Street) with other Group members encompassing both retail and hospitality, including Jayne Gillin of the Little Pub Group (including The Corner House and The Green Man).
Food and drink certainly appears to be a strong offering in Winchester, which is home to The Black Rat, one of Hampshire’s two Michelin starred restaurants, while acclaimed Chesil Rectory celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.
However, Jayne warns: “In our sector the arrival of 1300 plus new hospitality seats in the last three years has had an impact. There are not enough residents or visitors to sustain the amount of hospitality businesses.
“Many independents try and support each other using local artisan suppliers and farmers; however it is cheaper to buy from the big suppliers… It is a balancing act to be both ethical and affordable. This conundrum is why so many independents are struggling. We really do need to get the message out to consumers we are in a ‘use us or lose us’ decade.”
Ashton Gray of The Old Vine, an 18th century inn with restaurant and rooms on Great Minster Street, comments: “As chains continue to proliferate on Winchester’s High Street we are positioning ourselves as the epitome of the ‘Great British Pub’ with locally sourced real ales, fine wines and carefully curated spirits. We take care to source the best products available to us and are enthusiastic promoters of local produce. But at the heart of the business are our incredible staff, who understand great hospitality and service and want our guests to have a great experience.
“In our opinion Winchester High Street needs more big retail names and enough independent businesses in the surrounding streets so visitors stay to explore.”
Agreed. As it is our independents that make the city special.