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Review of the year: 2016 for indies

From Brexit to business rates, there’s no doubt 2016 has been another interesting year for independent retailers.

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Ravi Grewal

’We make our own rules, and reap the rewards of our own hard effort’ – Ravi Grewal

The year got off to a good start for many indies, who reported a generally positive Christmas despite heavy discounting from both the high street and department stores at the end of 2015. A cold snap towards the end of January provided a further boost, as low temperatures and clear skies encouraged many shoppers to buy heavier knitwear and outerwear at full price.

Increased discounting emerged as the number one concern for fashion indies in February. A Drapers survey of 56 businesses across the UK and Ireland found almost a third (31%) were most worried about discounting, followed by high rents, rising overheads and the threat of online shopping. Tim Hobden, who has been running Buckinghamshire indie Landmark Clothing for more than 20 years, argued reductions from big retailers are making “indies’ jobs impossible”.

As winter turned to spring and thoughts turned towards the trade shows ahead, many independents said they were increasingly uninspired by the lack of variety on offer and concerned about rising travel costs. “Whoever is prepared to pay and put on a flash display gets in,” argued Stuff Womenswear owner Jane Bear. “This lack of product focus has left trade shows in a mess.” 

In May, almost six months on from devastating floods in the north of England and Scotland, independent retailers in the affected areas were still counting costs after buildings and stock were damaged. In many areas, trade failed to recover for months after the floods first hit.

The summer’s biggest news for independents was the fallout from the Brexit vote. The decision to leave the EU drew a mixed response from indies. Several who spoke to Drapers, including Dartagnan owner Matt Horstead, said they were worried about rising prices and shaky consumer confidence in the wake of the vote, although others were optimistic about the prospect of change.

Also over the summer, 17,000 sq ft independent department store Sandersons opened its doors as part of the region’s £50m Fox Valley development. Run by local businesswoman Deborah Holmes, the new store stocks Barbour, Gant and Ted Baker for men and Masai, Darling and Onjenu for women, as well as being home to florist and nail bar.

The hambledon

The Hambledon

The Hambledon won Retailer of the Year at the Drapers Independents Awards 2016

In September, Winchester’s The Hambledon was the big winner at the Drapers Independent Awards, taking home the gong for Best Lifestyle Independent of the year and the big one: Independent Retailer of the Year. The indie department store, which stocks men’s, women’s and accessories, was praised as an “innovative store built on passion” and “inspiring” by judges. Read our interview with owner Victoria Suffield here.

Ravi Grewal, co-owner of menswear indie Stuarts London, gave a passionate speech at the awards, stating: “Competition is far greater today than it ever was, we are even competing with some of our own larger suppliers. But we are able to still survive. We are not robotic; we make our own rules, work on our own terms, and reap the rewards of our own hard effort.”

Also in September, it emerged that retailers in central London would be hit hardest by the government’s changes in rateable values. In some areas of the capital, rates jumped 400%, while values outside of London fell. Chancellor Philip Hammond came under fire for failing to address the business rates burden.

Despite predictions from experts that this year’s Black Friday would again be a largely online event, independents reported a spike in full-price sales over the weekend of the discounting phenomenon, even though many refused to discount. 

In December, indies in London were hit by more flooding, this time in Islington, north London, following a burst water main. The damage of homes and business was estimated to run into millions of pounds, but shop owners were determined to fight back. Those that were able to open offered late night shopping to try and draw in shoppers, as well as launching a Twitter campaign with the slogan: “It will take more than a flood to wash us away.”

At the end of the year, Blackburn was named the overall winner of the Great British High Street of the Year 2016, run by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

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