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Surviving and thriving on the high street

It’s no secret that the UK’s high streets are feeling the strain. With consumers reining in spending, combined with rising rents and goods prices, small retailers are having to work harder than ever to encourage buyers to part with cash and keep business healthy.

Lucy Thorniley, owner of florist Northern Flower, based in Manchester’s artsy Northern Quarter, has witnessed the area’s transformation into one of the most popular neighbourhoods in Manchester in the 14 years she’s been running her business.

‘It has seen a lot of changes, but, in my opinion, it’s all for the best really – it’s made it a busier place for me to have my business,’ she explains. ‘And obviously all of the other businesses that are around just attract more people to the area.’

Increasing interest in an area is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, growth in footfall to a neighbourhood is obviously great for the businesses based there. But on the other, the new-found popularity can potentially lure competitors to set up nearby and, more pressingly for small business owners, can force up rents.

She’s been lucky so far, she says. In the course of 14 years there’s been one change of landlord and her rent has stayed relatively flat. But rent inflation is a key concern for many small business owners on the UK high street. In Manchester, average commercial rents have edged up to £35 per square foot, and according to the Federation of Small Business’s quarterly survey of business confidence, almost half the small businesses in the north west region reported that revenues were dipping.

In a report published in September 2017, the FSB also found that 64% of small business owners felt the revaluation of business rates had had a negative impact on their business, and that businesses were spending on average 30% of their annual revenue on rent and business rates. ‘Quite a few people lately have told me they have to move because their landlord is putting the rent up, so I think a lot of people are cottoning on to the fact that it is a desirable area.’ says Lucy.

The Northern Quarter’s growing popularity has also brought with it two more florist businesses, opening up close by, in the time Lucy has been running her shop. ‘I think there are only maybe five or six florists in the city centre, three of which are in the Northern Quarter,’ she says.

Thankfully the new competition doesn’t seem to have hurt trade. Lucy says the three florists are fairly different in terms of their business models and approach – one of her neighbours works mainly in floral arrangements for events and uses his shop to host appointments rather than encourage passing trade, while the other, in a high footfall spot near Debenhams, aims to sell high volumes at low cost. Northern Flower, meanwhile, is more of a destination shop with an emphasis on service. Lucy says that the market becoming more competitive has encouraged her to review the shop and invest in improvements.

‘I looked at some of the other businesses and the refurbishments they’d done over the years; some of the really nice, quirky cafes and bars have very much changed their look and upped their game, which made me do something,’ she explains. ‘I had a relatively big refurbishment in January last year. I expanded into the cellar space and we do workshops down there, it also gives me more space to sell things like pots and vases and candles.’

When people come in, they get a service they wouldn’t get online. They get to choose, they get to smell, they get to have all those sense tapped into

Like any independent high street business, Northern Flower has big businesses encroaching on its market, such as supermarkets selling similar products at a price it can’t compete with, as well as new, digital companies seeking to disrupt its market. In the florist sector, several mail-order flower companies have popped up in recent years, promising customers beautiful blooms and fresher stems that last longer.

Although these factors cause concern among others in her industry, Lucy says it encourages her to look hard at her own business and engage with her customers to find out why they like coming to Northern Flower.

‘I don’t think you can look at it like that. Yeah, supermarkets sell flowers cheap – especially at Valentine’s Day when they’ll sell a dozen red roses for £3.99. But that’s a different sort of person. I don’t think that person would ever really shop in a florist anyway. I think you’ve got to differentiate yourself in other ways, and package your stock nicely and offer better service and hope they’ll come to you even if it’s just for a really special occasion.’

‘When people come in, they get a service they wouldn’t get online. They get to choose, they get to smell, they get to have all those sense tapped into that you don’t get when you do something mail order. I think as long as you get people into the habit of buying flowers and having fresh flowers in the home more regularly, then that can only be good for everyone.’