The Shopkeeper Diaries – A Few Tips on Keeping Shop

So many people want to start their own business – nearly 500 000 new businesses are launched every year in Britain, among them new food shops, homewares shops and tearooms similar to mine. I opened our grocery shop-tearoom in Margaret’s Buildings, Bath, nearly 20 months ago, and in that time I have been asked for advice and guidance on how to set up an independent shop many times, from cooks and foodies all over the world who follow me on social media and have come into the shop as customers.

At a time of considerable public spending cuts and economic challenges, the government has championed entrepreneurs as highly important in providing jobs and in contributing to the GDP and Inland Revenue.

Every business is unique, and no two approaches are ever the same, but I have learned a great deal in a short time. I hope that the following list of tips is helpful and useful for those who are looking to set up something similar.

1.   Before you start your business do make sure you squirrel away a reasonable financial cushion – maybe by by working in a similar local business and saving up. The start-up expenses are always much more than expected and the time when you start to hit profit targets takes much longer than expected to arrive, so prudence and patience are important. If you work in a similar business beforehand you can also use that time as an earning and learning opportunity too because…

2.   ….when you start your own business you will need to be the accountant, marketing officer, social media director, book-keeper, cook, cleaner, yard sweeper, packer, waiter etc, etc. The more independent and self-sufficient you are when you launch, the better, because you will face so many challenges along the way and if you need to get the job done by yourself it is always better, cheaper and more reliable.

3.   Of course watching your profit margins is everything in business – you need to be very careful with wastage, frugal with expenditure and mindful of stock turnover. You need to be quite ruthless with any part of your business that is not profitable or sustainable – cut out the losses, or the losses will cut you out of the trade. You cannot please all of the people all of the time – sometimes less is more.

4.   When I ask my friends and acquaintances who own food shops, restaurants, pubs, cafes, bars etc “What is the biggest challenge you face?” the answer is always, like a chorus on a stage,  “Staffing!” The food business does attract a lot of people who want to work here, there and everywhere, changing jobs frequently, using temporary jobs to make money for travelling or for going out. Lots of people do not want to work weekends, bank holidays, half terms, school holidays, or at closing time {when everything needs to be cleaned!}. Finding staff whose work ethics, standards, flexibility, maturity and commitment level matches yours will be tough, so when you find conscientious and diligent staff they are a really important and precious asset to your business.

5.   Make your buying choices with conviction – choose the products that you really believe in and that sell well for you. Always be on the lookout on social media, food fairs, festivals, magazines and blogs to see the latest artisan food producers and trends.

6.   Owning a food business is a marathon not a sprint – you really need sustained stamina, nerve and good health to survive. Look after yourself, get sleep, eat properly and make sure that you get out of “the bubble” that owning a shop-restaurant-café-unit is. So that you do not feel isolated in your businesses try to make friends with likeminded professionals in the sector and meet them regularly to compare experiences and talk through issues – other business owners are facing identical challenges, every day, and can provide invaluable guidance proven by experience.

7.   Social media is free and really powerful in increasing awareness of your business, driving traffic to your website and ensuring customers find your destination. I used social media from day one of starting my business and it has proved an invaluable tool. In particular, Instagram is like free television advertising, a visual social discovery platform used by buyers, businesses and brands of all sizes. It is estimated there are now nearly 500 million engaged users – your competitors and customers are on it and it is so easy to get found by the print press and get influential referrals.

I try to post light, bright pictures of our produce, deliveries, lunches and homewares, showing the followers as much as I can of the everyday life of owning a shop as well as the many attractions that make Bath worth visiting. I post frequently, consistently and with enthusiasm, tagging makers, artisans, fellow Bath businesses and events that would interest tourists and visitors. I use hashtags like #IndependentBath #Bath #BathIndieShops as well as linking in with our local tourist account @visitbath.

8.   If you are after a food shop lease consider the issue of rent to footfall ratio in your specific commercial area really carefully. Obviously you will need to pay much more rent in an area of high footfall, for a shop that has a wide window straight on the high street, with its own direct doorway, in a community hub surrounded by other food shops, with important, focal destinations at either end of the street. Be quite cautious about low rent areas – they are low rent for a reason and the shops there much more likely to die. In retail footfall is the most important consideration, so do weigh up the amount of energy and time you will have to become a “destination” shop if you aim to sell perishable goods. Walk every street, get to know the streetscape, local receptiveness, tourist accessability and architectural details really well and consider where the sun rises and sets {a south facing, hot grocery store means perishable goods will wilt and die, a west facing store means customers sitting alfresco outside get the afternoon sun, a north facing window is ideal for flowers etc, etc}, take into account that a shop on many floors is difficult to manage, you will need more staff and more energy, that older, listed buildings require special planning permissions for refurbishment or conversion, and that an A1 use planning permission will only allow ancillary use of the premises for serving hot food and drink. The use classes are on the Planning Portal here

9.   Before I opened my bricks and mortar shop I launched my business online and then I set up a pop-up shop. If you set up a pop-up market stall, or at a food fair, or even at a local event this will give you important experience in dealing with suppliers, customers and staff. It will give you a practice area to see if you have the discipline and personality to do the job. 99% of being a shopkeeper is inside you head – not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, a boss, an employer, a buyer or a salesman.

10.   The recession, Brexit, world affairs and online retailing will, of course, have a huge impact on all small high street businesses. Experiential retailing is key, where the customer gets to enjoy a beautiful shop, friendly service, unusual stock or original products. People love to shop in real shops, they feel engaged with other people and connected to a town or city – constantly refreshing your offer, keeping your shop welcoming, light, clean and decorative means you are giving them a reason to keep experiencing your offer. I constantly move stock around the shop, keep fresh flowers at the front, put produce in crates outside, display different merchandise from hooks in the front window and move the furniture round – it’s hard work re-inventing the offer, but customers have so much choice in Bath that I need to make our little world one that customers will want to come back to.

I hope that these hints and tips have been helpful – all good wishes and the very best of luck if you embark on a start-up!

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