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Time to stand up in support of our region's small shops

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 07, 2013

  • Holsworthy has recently invested nearly £40,000 in new market stalls in the town centre Pictures: MARTIN HESP, Emily Whitfield-Wicks

  • Holsworthy appears to be bucking a trend for small traders. The town centre has some 60 businesses plus 35 market stallholders in the square – plus another 25 firms associated with the weekly livestock market

  • Bonnie Grills, of Stevens Home Hardware, Camelford

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Today is Small Business Saturday – which, according to Martin Hesp, means we should all be shopping with our local independent traders, if we love our local communities…

Times change, places evolve. The way we go about our daily business becomes refined. If it's easier and cheaper, for example, to shop in big chain outlets or on the internet, why shouldn't we? And why should we care if a small local business can't keep up with the times?

That is one attitude we could take today, which is Small Business Saturday – Britain's first ever dedicated day to support the nation's five million small firms – but it might be the biggest cut-off-a-nose-to-spite-a-face move we could ever make.

Why? Because the great majority of us live in communities – and they're complex inter-layered things which require an element of sustainability.

And here's a fact concerning much-misused word: for every £1 we spend with a local independent business, between 50 pence and 70 pence circulates back into the local economy. That is sustainability.

Online or out of town shopping sees just five pence circulating locally for every £1 we spend – which doesn't bode well for any community.

But in a nation that increasingly features out-of-town big-shed consumer parks set in a landscape that is ploughed across by a small army of internet delivery vans, does Small Business Britain still exist? If so, how is it faring?

To find out I visited two small, very different, very ancient, market towns – and learned a lot about how the independent businesses in our midst are surviving. The first thing a visitor to either Holsworthy or Camelford would ask is – how would such places survive without them?

Go to Holsworthy on a Wednesday morning and the market-day atmosphere would lead you to believe the place is number one flag-waver for small-business Britain. The whole booming, energetic, caboodle (apart from a Waitrose supermarket) seems to live, eat and breathe within the realm of the independent trader.

There are some 60 businesses in town, plus 35 market stallholders in the square – plus another 25 firms associated with the weekly livestock market – not to mention a further 60 small companies up in the industrial estate.

There's even a local retailer who is town mayor who thinks profound thoughts on the future of small businesses…

"The way people shop has changed dramatically in recent years," says Holsworthy mayor, John Allen. "Shopping habits have moved from the daily shop that our grandparents did in the local shops, to a weekly shop in a supermarket which provide free car parking and a one-stop shop facility.

"We have online shopping, providing what is perceived as a low-cost alternative without ever leaving our armchairs. So what can the retailer do to compete with this changing face of the high street?"

Mr Allen told me: "They can make the town more attractive to encourage visitors, make the shops interesting and stock a different variety of products and give a personal service that is not available when you shop online.

"But none of this will help unless people's attitude towards shopping changes," he warned. "The first port of call for most of the younger generation is supermarkets and online companies – they rarely use local shops unless as a last resort."

He talked about other problems like the fact many local councils were reluctant to consider free car parking in towns as parking charges provided much needed income.

"The public must accept that if the small shopkeeper is to survive they must be supported," he said. "Money spent in a town stays in the town – money spent in supermarkets and online businesses goes out of the town.

"If the local high street is to survive, landlords need to be realistic in the rents they charge, government needs to review business rates, councils to remove the concessions given to charity shops and be more flexible in their attitude to free car parking – and look at the long-term effect giving planning permission to supermarkets has on the local high street."

Holsworthy is doing its bit. Town clerk Lisa Bowman told me her council had recently invested nearly £40,000 in new market stalls in the central square every Wednesday an redesigned the layout so stalls now face existing shops rather than turn their back on them.

"We are trying to up-the-ante in our marketing to put Holsworthy on the map," she told me.

As I walked around the market I met a young man who's just moved to Devon to set up a business. Daniel Bennet had created a new range of special aprons for well known retailer Dan Garnett (known as Dan the Fishman) and he told me: "We embroider onto any sort of clothing. We also do printed ware, mugs, caps… anything really.

"Small businesses are massively important to an area like this," said Mr Bennet. "It is about all working together and supporting each other. When the local shoppers help small businesses out – it's fantastic for the whole community."

In one shop in the town square Don Woods – selling pasties and other bakery items – he told me how he'd graduated from potential unemployment to running a market stall, then his own permanent shop

"Yesterday we got to the point where we'd sold out by half-eleven – we went back to the bakery in Bude got some more pasties and sold out again in an hour. I moved from a stall to a shop because I felt it was a good base for my family," said Mr Woods.

"Big businesses take money from a small community – take it out of town and spend it elsewhere," he added. "Smaller businesses like mine keep the money in the area. It helps the local community."

Outside, I suggested to Dan the Fishman he must know more about the world of small-town-small-business Westcountry than anyone as he operates in different communities six days a week…

"It's the only way I can make a business," he shrugged, before adding a slightly negative note. "Holsworthy is a friendly little town, but it is on the slide. There are fewer people coming in to town than there used to be – and my great fear is that, when they have a second supermarket here, it will suck the town dry.

"I am told that as soon as the new livestock market is complete, Tesco will start building on the old site – then you will only see me here for a couple of hours a week. But I am a mobile tradesman and I can up sticks – my fear is for the business people who are here six days a week."

But he said defiantly: "Small businesses are far from finished – this is real shopping for real people. Country people know the value of proper food and proper goods."

Taking a direct route as a Cornish chough would fly one score miles to the south-west, Camelford looked altogether more quiet on a Wednesday afternoon – partly because that is early-closing-day in town.

The very idea of early-closing would be an anathema to the directors of big chain stores or 24-hour internet shopping concerns – but then out-and-out commercial gain is not what Small Business Britain is all about. Customer service would be one important element that independent local traders master in – as is underlined by Camelford town councillor and shopkeeper, Bonnie Grills…

"If there's a faulty product (which you've bought off the internet) it's the hassle of returning it by post – on the high street you just bring it back and because you've got your 12 months guarantee – there's no hassle," said Mrs Grills, who runs Stevens Home Hardware in Camelford's famous (sometimes infamous for traffic) main street.

"We also have a huge diversity of products in store to meet the local need. That's important in a country area. People know that if they ring us up and we haven't got it, we will get it," added Mrs Grills whose business is affiliated with a massive buying group, which means many of the products she sells are actually less expensive than the same items carried by the large chains.

The small business story in Camelford isn't bad, given the four years of recession the country's been through – only one of the 27 shops in the main street is presently vacant.

"The town has been pretty steady throughout the recession period," Mrs Grills said. "If a shop has become vacant, then it's been up and running again quite soon. We have a huge catchment area – from Wadebridge right up to Bude – across the moors from Altarnun, St Breward. They all come into Camelford.

"We have three banks here – which is incredible for a town this size – but it's because of the huge catchment area. And we don't have a large supermarket – there is land earmarked for one, but you can see that from the town centre so hopefully that wouldn't have too much effect on the town.

I told Mrs Grills I was about to take a tour around the town to get an overview – from the shops in the centre down in the river valley right up to the small industrial estate on the hill which hosts around a dozen businesses…

"What you are going to see is a surviving Camelford," she said. "There are many reasons for that – we have two free car parks in the centre of town and we've got free toilets.

"The town put in a bid for the Mary Portas scheme – we were unsuccessful, but we were allocated £10,000 for the second bid – and that can make a difference to a small town like this. We are looking at using it to market the town better – getting signs up to let people know we are actually here.

"And we do have many people who come in on holiday who say the've driven through Camelford for a number of years, but this time they've decided to stop. So it is vitally important that we have local businesses for these visitors and that we keep them," added Mrs Grills.

"Without them the list of the unemployed would be much greater. They play a vital role within the economic climate of the country. For every £1 spent with a local independent business between 50 pence and 70 pence circulates back into the local economy."

She picked up a brochure from a small business pressure group she belongs to and read: "Buying locally boosts your local economy – rebuilding confidence in the local community, enabling those businesses to prosper and grow. Online shopping or out of town shopping may save you a little time – but for every £1 you spend only 5 pence trickles back into the local economy.

"When you shop with your local independents you are doing your bit to keep your high street, town or village centre open for business – it is a case of either use it or lose it."

On Small Business Saturday that should be a motto we all take with us as we head for town.

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