Is it time to refresh your store?

27 February 2023, 07:49 AM
  • The quieter months can be an opportunity to revamp your premises, but it’s vital to do it smartly says Ellen Manning
Is it time to refresh your store?

Most artisan food and drink retailers start small. But with success comes growth, and while some may choose to keep things simple, for many the time comes when they need more space, improved facilities, or something more in keeping with an established business rather than one that’s new to the scene.

That often means either expansion or refurbishment, but either step comes with a large financial commitment, inevitable disruption, and the eternal fears associated with difficult economic times, unpredictable audiences and what ‘could’ happen if it doesn’t quite work. With so many pitfalls and so much at stake, it can be difficult to know when to take the plunge and how to choose whether to refurbish or expand into bigger premises.

“You know the time is right when your space doesn’t fill your soul,” says Catherine Connor, co-owner of Lovingly Artisan Bakery, which recently refurbished its flagship store at Plumgarth’s near Kendal.

“If it doesn’t inspire you, you’re less likely to be the inspiration in that space and your customers certainly won’t be inspired either, which is what you really don’t want.”

For Connor, refurbishing was about creating a “visual feast” – an environment that left a lasting impression and would encourage people to return as well as inspiring them to share pictures on social media. In Connor’s view, building up a tribe of loyal customers who visit weekly, then asking them to follow you to a new location can be a risky move.

“If you’ve built something magical and they are queuing down the street (in our case), that’s definitely not a hint to move. Instead it’s an affirmation that you need to keep doing all that you’re doing but look at ways of doing it better to keep improving the customer experience. If an inspirational facelift is all your business requires, make that your goal – adding additional costs to your bottom line and overall expenditure is something you really have to think long and hard about.”

A facelift can be cheaper than a move
For Maria Whitehead, co-owner at Hawkshead Relish, a fresh look and an uplifting shop is key to attracting customers and ensuring they enjoy their experience. “Letting things slide might be an economy but it deters shoppers,” she says.

Refurbishment can also prove cheaper than moving premises, says Whitehead, especially if you’re savvy about it. “It’s often possible to upcycle fittings and move things around quite significantly, which allows you to provide a variety of new retail configurations but also gives your overall look a refresh and in many cases can provide a store with elegance and renewed vibrancy at minimal cost.

“It’s certainly far cheaper than looking for new premises and it also helps landlords who in many cases are keen to retain tenants who look after the property and pay their rent, so don’t be afraid to renegotiate a lease - it can’t harm to ask and that’s straight on your bottom line.”

Mandira Sarkar, founder of Surrey-based Mandira’s kitchen, an award-winning producer of authentic Indian food, realised that while she loved her shop, it didn’t lend itself to the growing footfall they were experiencing after opening in 2019.

“We couldn’t display things properly, customers could not choose for themselves and it was all a bit transactional. We didn’t really have the option of extending the space so had to redo the existing space cleverly and decided it was time to refurbish.” Her advice in deciding whether the time is right? “Think why you need the refurb – it needs to be a commercial decision. There is no point spending money on something that customers will not pay additional for or buy more from.”

A growing opportunity
For Harry Jackson at butter makers Winter Tarn Dairy in Cumbria, refurbishment wasn’t an option, since space was the biggest problem. The combination of the impact of the Covid pandemic, a big contract producing individual butter portions and a TV documentary catapulting them into the limelight meant their decision to expand to a new dairy three times the size of their previous home was a necessity. He admits the move was scary, albeit vital.

“Obviously, you’ve got to think that your rent’s going out at a much bigger rate than it was and we’ve spent on new equipment, so it is quite scary.” But while expansion was about increasing volume, it also helped improve their product.

“By putting better equipment in, it’s actually allowed us to produce a better butter.” Alongside that, one day he hopes further expansion would allow them to move to a smallholding where sustainability can be front and centre of everything they do.

Lancaster Brewery Holdings has expanded noticeably in recent years, taking on several big projects during the Covid pandemic, including the creation of a distillery so they could produce their own Lancaster Spirits Company vodka and gin, as well as launching the Tite & Locke Bar at Lancaster train station.

“We’ve developed and invested in more projects and new businesses in the last three years than any other three year period in our company’s history,” general manager Gemma Carradice tells Speciality Food. The projects had been on the cards for a while, but the Covid pandemic gave them time to think and decide to push ahead.

“Covid gave us the opportunity to think, ‘hang on a minute we can make this happen’.” Such a step may sound whimsical, but the changing nature of the way people shop, eat and drink meant the time was right, she explains. “We are in a time of great flux. In such times it’s important to flex, improve and adapt. Standing still doesn’t work in such a rapidly changing economy. The distillery, for instance, is all about repositioning our company to generate more revenue from retail and the off trade.”

Don’t underestimate the value of creativity
In the same way the ‘why’ of when to refurbish or expand can vary, so can the ‘how’. But while each business is unique and may do things differently, those who have been on the journey can point out the pitfalls or lessons they learned along the way.

When it comes to refurbishment, it’s important to do things that will make a difference for the customer, says Hawkshead’s Whitehead. “Maybe don’t redecorate the back office and instead concentrate on refreshing and revitalising the bits the public can see and use day in, day out.”

For Connor, pepping things up doesn’t always have to mean spending lots of money. “Our simple mantra is: ‘Don’t throw money at it, throw your imagination at it instead’. A little creativity always presents you with the opportunity to make things better. And in the tough times, a little creativity is probably even more vital, you have to create the desire to want to come to the store to make sales,” she adds, citing upcycling as one way of refurbishing without spending big.

“The trick is not to fall into the trap of turning it into a vanity project – if it does it’ll cost you a fortune. Try to see your location through the eyes of the customer, what do they want from your store and how do they want to feel when they are there?”

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