High street's beating heart - Strength in unity for independent shops at core of York's offering

“It’s independents that are really holding the whole thing together,” said Coun Johnny Hayes as he reflected on York city centre’s relative retail buoyancy.

Julia Holding who owns The Pig and Pastry cafe on Bishopthorpe Road in York with her husband Steve. Bishopthorpe Road was named Britain's Best High Street in a competition run by the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2015. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

Now the chairman of voluntary initiative, Indie York, as well as being Micklegate ward’s independent councillor, Coun Hayes, as an ‘indie’ trader himself, was part of a group of local entrepreneurs who turned Bishopthorpe Road – a short walk from the city centre – into a high street success story.

The street’s array of independent traders – cafes, a butchers, a hardware store and a florist among them – work together to raise the street’s profile by staging regular community events such as street parties.

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Then High Streets Minister Marcus Jones (right) walks with Councillor Johnny Hayes during his time as chairman of the Bishopthorpe Road Traders Association, down Bishopthorpe Road in York in March 2016 after the road had been named Britain's Best High Street. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

Following its successful reinvention, city centre streets have sought to recreate a community feel too.

Retailers in Micklegate and Fossgate are centre among those who host events, such as the Fossgate Festival and the annual Micklegate Soapbox Derby.

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“In excess of 65 per cent of the retailers in the city centre are independent,” Coun Hayes said. "The reality is now, if you ask people why they come to York, at the top of the list is its atmosphere and they like the independent shops. No one wants the same-old anymore, they don’t want to go to identikit high streets and independents have that ability to be individual and provide something different."

The Shambles is York's most famous shopping street and a hive of independent shops. It is one of the best-preserved medieval shopping streets in Europe. Picture by James Hardisty.

But, he warns, making an indie retailer successful is no easy undertaking.

"Most independent businesses are pretty marginal and it doesn’t take a lot to make a business go from a profit to a loss.

“The only way forward for independents is working together to promote themselves collectively. Trying to ‘sell’ your individual shop doesn’t have the same impact.”

Coun Hayes has helped set up Indie York to champion the businesses via a website which shows outlets on a map. More than 200 businesses have signed up.

Julia Holding has run The Pig and Pastry cafe on Bishopthorpe Road with her husband, Steve, for more than a decade. She said that replicating the street’s success requires collaboration, explaining: “It’s about having supportive landlords, traders coming together, but at the end of the day, you have to have good quality businesses that look at what customers want.

“It’s really difficult on the high street. It’s going through a change and is reinventing itself. I don’t know what the answer is completely but it is not over for the high street. It just needs to be rethought out.”

Local historian, Susan Major, has recently published a book documenting Bishopthorpe Road’s past, entitled 'Bishy Road: a York shopping street in time' which is available to buy from local shops for £5.

Her book tells of how Bishopthorpe Road, to become what it is known for today has overcome various challenges, including the threat of an inner ring road being built in the 1960s and 1970s which would have scythed through the area, cutting houses off from the shops.

Around the same time, the street had an unwanted reputation for prostitution and and burglars.

Simon Kneafsey runs M&K Quality Butchers on Bishopthorpe Road with his brother Matthew. It has been in the family since 1970.

On the street’s success, he said: “It’s an excellent community with good community spirit and participation, and lots of shops that offer a friendly welcome.”

Mr Kneafsey does however believe that even such a successful high street such as this needs to continue to be mindful to retain the right balance of retail offer.

“There are a lot of eateries here now that are very good, that attract people to the street, but if anything the mix of shops is now slightly less. That said, the street continues to be successful.”

Paul Whiting, head of Visit York, said the tourism marketing agency had last week launched a new year-long initiative, Only in York, a digital campaign to to champion the city’s shopping experience and its programme of events.

He said indie shops are creating an offer in York that is matching shoppers' evolving expectations.

“It about an experience, people want a shopping experience and our independents do that, for example, going down The Shambles, it’s a real experience," Mr Whiting said.

Phil Pinder, runs men's accessories retailer Cuffs & Co which has two outlets, one on The Shambles and one on Goodramgate.

He believes that independent shops must harness internet opportunities so that they are not just relying on footfall.

Around 60 per cent of his turnover is derived from online sales, diminishing his reliance on physical sales on the high street.

Such has been the success of his business model, it has given him the freedom to invest in a new venture, The Potions Cauldron, which recently opened on The Shambles and is inspired by the Medieval street’s purported association with Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films.

Mr Pinder, who has 15 years of experience working in retail, said: “Most of our sales at Cuffs & Co are online now - our web traffic is going up by 40 per a year - so the store is almost like our showroom now.

“You have to do something different now to be in retail. You can’t expect customers to come to you just in one place.

“The secret is having your own products. It’s so easy for shoppers to walk into a shop, scan an item with their mobile phones and find it cheaper on Amazon. You have to be in control of your own pricing. If you go on Amazon looking for our products, you won’t find them any cheaper.

“Getting the right premises for the right business is also important."

Mr Pinder added: "York is a hotbed for starting a business because it has a lot of little shops and I think that’s what high streets need to go back to because the rents are more affordable.”