Meeting some fantastic independent retailers in Surrey
PUBLISHED: 16:08 19 August 2019
We shine a spotlight on some of the small shops and independent retailers enriching the local communities and high streets around them
All across Surrey, small businesses are busy sourcing products, stocking shelves and pouring their hearts and souls into creating a shopping experience that offers something a little different from the identikit high street chains.
From gift shops to boutiques, and butchers to bakers, it's said that for every £1 spent locally around 50-70p of that money recirculates back into the local economy. Compare that with the 5p that trickles back to the community when shopping out of town or online and you start to see just one of the reasons why the hardworking people behind our local shops are so important.
That's not to mention the social value they have to neighbourhood morale, and the support they offer to smaller producers and makers.
We spoke to three thriving independents to find out why buying locally means the world, and the real story of what it takes to keep afloat in these challenging times…
"Arranging the flowers for my mother's funeral was the catalyst that led to me opening my shop Mad Lilies. My mum and my grandmother had both been florists but I had followed a different path, with a rather more corporate job in pharmaceuticals. I was disillusioned with the options on offer when organising the flowers for mum, so I decided to do a floristry course to see if the gene was in me. It was like a lightbulb moment, which made me rediscover my creative side.
I explored starting up from scratch, but the opportunity came up to invest in an established business. Lily was my grandmother's name, so it felt like a sign this was meant to be. I kept the name Mad Lilies - it had a great reputation - but rebranded to put my own softer, feminine stamp on it. Retail florists are a bit of a dying breed so I knew we needed to offer something different. Our strapline is 'Life in Flowers' and that sums up what we do - from births to weddings and funerals we're there for all the significant life events. It's a privilege to be able to help.
Today we're so much more than a florist and we aim to offer our customers an all-round experience when they pay us a visit. So as well as running a series of very successful workshops, we've started stocking a range of homewares, which all complement the flowers, plants and botanicals we sell. Everything is chosen to enhance your home. I wanted to position the store as an inspirational space, and make it a destination for an eclectic mix of gifts and interiors. I'm also very keen to support British and artisan brands.
Yes, there are challenges - rent and rates in particular are a constant struggle and I always say to other small business owners 'you can't be amazing every day'. But as a smaller business we are more agile and I do think that people appreciate the diversity we offer. Our customers are so loyal and supportive - they see that small business like ours are the heart and the vibrancy of the high street."
"Running my own shop didn't happen overnight. I started off hosting gift parties, and then experimented by doing a series of pop-up shops in a local wine bar. I got a sense of what people were buying and then shared premises with a deli before taking over the lease on my own. It all grew very organically until I set up shop in St John's, Woking in 2014. Today we're a gift, homewares and fashion boutique.
There's a huge community aspect to what we do. Our customers pop along for a chat and to share their problems as well as to buy something. Customer service is at the heart of everything - we know people's names and get a sense of what they might like, which makes things feel more personal. The range we stock has evolved over the years. For instance I never intended to do fashion, but now it's an integral part of who we are. I like changing things around and keeping the product mix fresh. Finding new items for the shop is a massive thrill for me, especially when you see someone wearing something you've chosen, or spot a special purchase in their home.
I'm a big believer in investing in my own skills, which in turn can add value to the business. When you run your own shop it's hard not to let it take over your life. Thankfully I have a very supportive husband - he's detail-focused, while I'm more creative, so we're a good team. With prices going up generally, it is hard to compete with larger retailers, but we're constantly looking at ways to go the extra mile. We have a loyalty scheme, and soon we'll be taking the business online too. I'm not trying to replace the shop, but it's a way of expanding our reach and looking after the customers we already have.
Retail is a lot of hard graft, and not brilliant pay, but for me it's a lifestyle choice. I also think there's a real opportunity for independents to keep reinventing and innovating while some of the biggest high street names are failing. It's such a buzz when people tell us they love what we do and that the shop is beautiful, but we do need more than kind words. We need people to keep buying from our independent shops if we want them to survive."
"The Shop at Strood Green is run by the community for the community. People don't just come here to shop, but to meet, exchange news, get out of the house and have a chat too. We're run by a local volunteer management committee, with a group of employed shop staff (we all live within three miles of the shop), who are supported in turn by many other local people who volunteer their time. So we can say that we are truly community run, and all profits are either reinvested into the business or used to benefit the local area.
We opened in 2009 after lots of fundraising to get up and running. Since then, the shop has grown and we've grown with it - a bigger team, more products and an extension built to house our busy café. We're open seven days a week and as well as being an 'emergency shop' stocking all the basics we also have a really unique selection of local goods. We can't compete with the big supermarkets on price, but what we do offer is diversity and an experience that feels a bit different. We've become a hub for local meet-ups - there's a Knit & Natter group on a Monday afternoon and we run a children's book club too.
We find that visitors from outside the area are always interested in the local produce we sell. As well as wine from Denbies and gin from Silent Pool, we support small independent suppliers, such as St Joans Dairy ice cream from Reigate and Kokoh chocolate from Ewhurst. We bake our own bread, and our customers come in specially for our freshly baked sausage rolls. We stock local eggs and honey, and when our neighbours have a glut of fruit and veg - apples or plums, for instance - we'll sell those too.
The fact that we're still here after 10 years feels like a big achievement in the current climate. I think it's important that the older, local residents have somewhere they can come to. They might not see anyone else all day, but our staff will happily stop and have a chat."
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