Finding the right property and designing an inspiring store can be daunting, but thorough research will pay dividends.
For independent retailers, securing the right property in the most suitable location can be an incredibly stressful experience that takes you out of your comfort zone. Then you have to fit out the space in a way that will last for a number of years, suit your customer profile and stay within budget. This is no small task.
In the third instalment of our beginner’s guide to running an indie, we look at the crucial elements that need to be borne in mind when selecting and fitting out the perfect store.
First things first: the location has to be spot on. You should consider who your target audience is and where they go to shop. Do you need the strong footfall seen on prime high streets or will you offer a destination store that shoppers will gladly seek out in a more secondary location?
Suffolk-based premium independent Javelin has a store on Abbeygate in the centre of Bury St Edmunds, which has traded since 1989, and a second in the small market town of Sudbury, which opened in a former pub on Friars Street in October 2013. Co-owner Jeremy Clayton stresses the importance of “doing your homework first” before settling on a location, and making sure the adjacencies and footfall levels are right. If it is a secondary location, he suggests checking whether it has visibility from the main roads, and if it is an old shop with an awkward shape, whether it can be adequately adapted.
“You need a certain amount of retail nous,” he adds. “If you are getting a shop for the first time, you need to get to know the town, shopping habits and other retailers. If you’re going into a new town, you’ve got to be much more careful and need to spend time there. Go on market days but also on quieter days, and at different times of the day and year to get a feel for it.”
He believes it is helpful to speak to property agents in the area as they can let you know when properties become available before they hit the market, “as space often changes hands without people knowing”.
Kyle Stewart, co-owner of Shoreditch contemporary lifestyle retailer The Goodhood Store, which relocated from Coronet Street to a new, larger store on the much busier Curtain Road in September to tap into higher footfall, agrees: “Getting out and getting to know the area is the most important thing.
“Open up in an area where there isn’t someone doing what you want to do already - that gets missed by a lot of people. There’s no point jumping into a crowded market and it will likely create bad vibes with other store owners.”
With many indies still facing an uphill struggle against rising rents and high business rates, it is vital to get your head around the rents, business rates and service charges your concept can afford before taking the plunge.
Vicki Fernyhough, owner of womenswear boutique Yard on Bridport Road in Poundbury, Dorset, says “cost is critical”. She says retailers should “think outside the box and not always think you have to be in a prime A location” and pay top rents. She opened her store in 2010 in a new development - construction of the whole village was only begun in 1993 - after having researched the changing nature of the area and its demographics. She explains that to mitigate the risk she signed a break clause in her lease at the end of the first year, which gave her flexibility if it wasn’t the right location.
Oliver Green, retail associate director at property agency Savills, explains that agents understand the way landlords operate and can point retailers towards those that are focused on finding independent retailers and creating the best tenant mix, rather than just securing the highest rents.
“A lot of people see property as a vehicle to sell their product so it’s not their focus and is something they don’t really understand, so they can get themselves into trouble without the right advice,” he says.
It can take two to three months to seal the property deal, so retailers must start the search early. However, lease agreements can be complex and landlord-friendly. Green warns indies to pay particular attention to the repair obligations as many leases now come with full repairing terms, meaning the retailer is obliged to cover all repairs needed during the length of the lease.
Reinstatement clauses mean the retailer has to return the property at the end of the lease to the state it was in when it was taken on. Green explains: “It can often go over and above this so, unless it’s quantifiable what the condition is, some landlords can use that clause to force tenants to over-repair the property at the end of a lease. That’s the biggest hidden danger.”
To avoid this, he suggests retailers should write into lease agreements the state of the property. This can include photographic evidence.
He adds it’s important to know what you are paying for, particularly with service charges: “There are a lot of ways for landlords to put in additional costs, so you need to be sure what you are liable for.”
If you are not certain about a location or particular store, pop-up agreements can be an effective way of trialling space with fewer obligations and longer-term commitments. However, for any deal it is important to seek property-specific legal advice.
Once you’ve signed on the dotted line, the shopfit can get underway, which for an indie can take on average between eight to 10 weeks to complete.
Architecture firm MRA, which has offices in London and Paris, designed shops for lifestyle retailer House of Hackney in Shoreditch last year and designer retailer Matchesfashion.com’s Wimbledon store, which opened in April. Its managing director Anshu Srivastava says it is important for retailers to start thinking about their shopfit in tandem with looking for the right property, rather than leaving it until after the property has been secured. This ensures they don’t take on a unit that proves unworkable for their intended design.
He urges retailers to consider all elements of their store, including items like intruder alarms and fire extinguishers, so they can be seamlessly incorporated into the design. It is crucial, he adds, for the retailer’s whole team working on the product side of the business to be involved in the store planning process to ensure a holistic design. He also says indies need to think carefully about the product density they want to achieve and the flow of the store.
A big focus for retailers now is how to integrate technology into stores, such as Wi-Fi and digital screens, while creating flexible shopfits is also high on the agenda. Full fit-outs typically last from five to seven years, but with rents and rates putting a strain on indies, less money is available for full refurbs, which Srivastava believes has led retailers to seek more flexible fit-outs that can be gradually updated.
“Last Christmas we brought in more rugs and a stag’s head - different features to update the feel of the shop,” says Clayton. “It makes it different so people feel they are in a unique environment, and the interior is changing, but you haven’t got the constant fit-out being done. Bury St Edmunds [has been trading for] seven years without anything major being done, but within that time we have done a lot.
“As an indie, everything has got to be about giving your customer a better shopping experience, so make it more fun and funky than your competitors and the multiples. You need something that will sell your brand and make you stand out on the high street so the look and feel of the interior is paramount.”
He points out that it is “very important to be there when it’s being done, as there will be decisions being made on a daily basis. If you’re not involved, once it’s done you’ve lost your chance.”
Meanwhile, Stewart warns retailers not to overlook the “boring” things, such as the size of the stock room, in favour of focusing on more creative elements. To save money on fit-outs, womenswear brand Viz-a-Viz’s chief executive Rinku Loomba explains that his company can provide the shopfit for free to those who sign a PartnerShop deal. Around half of the brand’s 210 stockists have opted for the shopfit, which would cost more than £5,000 for the retailer to replicate.
“It’s more cost-effective and flexible for the retailer,” says Loomba. “Configurations can be varied to suit the independent shop, with different wall and floor fixtures.
‘You need something that will sell your brand and make you stand out on the high street, so the interior is paramount’
Jeremy Clayton, co-owner, Javelin
“It’s just one further step in making an independent and brand’s future more viable. The long-term future of independents depends on long-term relationships with brands and this is one more piece in the Jigsaw puzzle.”
The cost of fitting out a shop can vary hugely depending on the state of the shop to start with and the desired concept, and for many retailers their expense is a closely guarded secret.
Clayton explains that for a 1,200 sq ft shop it took 10 months from signing the deal to opening the store. He spent about £60,000, around half of which was spent on the actual fit-out once the property had been returned to its shell. But in reality, you can spend as much as you like.
Selecting and fitting a premises is undoubtedly a stressful and expensive process. However, it is clear that the more research and planning you do regarding your store and fit-out, the greater chance of success you are likely to have.
- Have a look at the second part of our step-by-step guide to setting up an independent shop - A beginner’s guide: Independent retail