It’s one of life’s great inequities that some of the best designer makers and artisan food producers barely sell enough to make a living. Many have to combine their craft with a second job to make ends meet. Websites such as Etsy, Folksy and Notonthehighstreet have helped but getting a product onto shop shelves is far more difficult. It requires sales and marketing skills and a substantial amount of time and money that some creatives just don’t have.
Meanwhile, small British manufacturers are closing their factories, unable to compete with cheap imports or to find skilled workers. Saddened by the injustice of this situation while sensing a greater desire to buy British and steer away from the mass-produced, Matt Hopkins came up with a pioneering concept: The Great British Exchange.
Its HQ is in a series of converted barns in Harrogate, which act as a “permanent trade show”, where retailers can hunt for exciting, original and beautiful goods all made in the UK.
The stands showcase products by scores of makers and there’s everything from cake in a can – “just add water and pop it in the oven” – to delicious-sounding toffee vodka. Pet lovers drool over handmade dog biscuits and Harris tweed leads, while Hairy Jayne hair products always raise a smile. There’s a strong Yorkshire presence too, including Ripon-based Glow lighting and Mirfield’s Ushiwear clothing. The Great British Exchange website offers even more choice, featuring more than 12,000 products.
Behind the scenes there is a slick IT operation that enables retailers to order and buy from a range of producers using just one account. The goods are packed by the maker and delivered using the Great British Exchange courier service.
“We are a distributor, a bit like the old corn exchanges. The idea is that we are a hub for British businesses looking to sell their products. Retailers can come here to the showroom or look on our website and choose items from hundreds of makers. It makes it easy to buy British and to get something new and different.
“From the maker’s point of view, we do all the marketing and admin, all they have to do is to make sure the goods are made and packaged ready to be collected by our courier,” says Matt, who charges makers 15 per cent commission and an annual £200 membership fee.
One of the first retailers to embrace the idea was John Lewis. It is trialling a “Made Locally” concept, stocking goods by Yorkshire makers in its new store at the Victoria Gate centre in Leeds. Fenwick and the National Trust are also looking at using the service.
This high-profile custom is a massive coup for Matt and the rest of the GBE team, who were thrilled with a celebrity endorsement from TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp, who said: “Coming up with a quality product is hard enough. Distributing it and getting it out into the market is a whole other challenge and a real stumbling block for small businesses. The Great British Exchange can bridge that gap.”
The vote to leave the EU also looks set to give the Exchange a boost. Thanks to a fall in the value of the pound, imported goods will cost more so buying home-grown could make better financial sense. “I hope that’s the case,” says Matt, who was UK MD of a Dutch firm specialising in licensed branding and development for the likes of Laura Ashley and Jamie Oliver.
“This whole idea started after I got fed-up of sourcing products in volume in the Far East. I looked at buying from the UK and found that small factories were closing while small makers were struggling to sell. That was depressing but during that time I met the most inspirational and creative people who were making the most amazing products.
“That’s when I came up with this new business model – one place where retailers could find all these fantastic British-made, artisanal goods,” he adds, pointing to an exquisite range of Tom Kerridge cookware. The chef patron of the two Michelin star Hand and Flowers restaurant insisted everything was made in the UK and it is. The ceramics are from Shropshire, the pans are from Birmingham and knives from Sheffield with handles covered in denim cured in resin.
Matt gave up his job and set up shop in the back bedroom of his house in Harrogate. Scouting for premises, he spotted converted barns to let at the end of his road. The owners, local egg farmers Ian and Nick Chippendale, also loved his ethical business plan and gave him a lease on the spot.
“It’s been hard work but incredibly rewarding as it’s such a wholesome venture that people enjoy being part of,” says Matt, who gives designers, makers and manufacturers advice on branding, sourcing materials and finding apprentices.
“There will always be a market for volume, value products made in the Far East but my hope is that this business will change the retail landscape in this country.”
The Great British Exchange, thegbexchange.com