Fifty years of retailing but now it’s time for hall change

A FEW things have changed on the high street since Mrs Slocombe put in the hours at a department store in the TV’s Are You Being Served?

The TV comedy was set in a traditional store based upon the kind that were found on high streets up and down the land. But, as has been well documented, many independent shops have found trading tough in recent years with chain stores increasingly dominating the retail landscape.

But now one retailer who was forced to shut up shop as a result of the downturn has come up with a novel way of trying to get the tills ringing again.

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For more than half a century Philip Hall, a small department store, in Ripon, had served the people of Ripon and the Yorkshire Dales – but earlier this year its owner, Anthony Blackburn, realised that the model that had worked for decades was failing.

When trading became difficult, not helped by unseasonal rainfall, he closed the store, with the loss of around 12 jobs. But he has since reopened and turned the store into Handpicked Hall, giving traders a chance to hire a pitch and sell their goods.

Mr Blackburn took his cue from Mary Portas’s 2011 review of high streets, where she said would-be retailers, or people who have something to sell, should be using indoor and outdoor markets to help them off the ground in town centres.

“I’m thrilled that in these challenging economic times we’re able to give small traders a successful start. This is a great opportunity to find out if their product works well on the high street.”

Figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) showed one in 10 shops on UK high streets and shopping centres were empty in October, with the North and Yorkshire among those regions with the highest vacancy rates.

It said the national town centre vacancy rate of 11.3 per cent was the worst figure since its nationwide survey began in July 2011.

A fifth of store units were empty in Northern Ireland and for the North and Yorkshire region the figure stood at 14.6 per cent. Greater London had 7.6 per cent of its units lying empty.

BRC director general Stephen Robertson said the new 
figures would set “alarm bells ringing” as it confirmed the financial challenges for both customers and retailers were far from over.

Mr Blackburn has zoned his business into four areas – food and drink, art and craft, accessories and vintage.

The stallholders are as diverse as their offerings. There are people looking for a new career, some making a lifestyle choice by working more flexible hours, and younger women with children. All come from within a 15-mile radius of Ripon.

Handpicked Hall, in Fishergate, which opens between Wednesday and Sunday, has a waiting list for the 32 stalls on some days.

It has only been open a month but to encourage people to stay longer, a small café, Polly Put the Kettle On, is being introduced.

For one of the businesses their stall has already had an unexpected boost. A visitor bought biscuits from The Sawley Kitchen bakery but inadvertently left them in a room in the nearby Swinton Park luxury hotel. The hotel housekeeper found and tried the biscuits and now The Sawley Kitchen has an order for 600 packs every month for the hotel’s hospitality trays.

“It’s this synergy, and the opportunities we offer, that really makes Handpicked Hall work,” Mr Blackburn says.

Stalls cost from £10 a day and go up to £30 for the busiest times.

Mr Blackburn added: “I could have let the building to a national chain, but this is so much more rewarding .”

“They are the future of the high street, and I know that some of them will go on to open their own shops, having tried out their retail concepts at Handpicked Hall.”

Mr Blackburn says the high street has to learn to adapt and give visitors a day out, with shops, places to eat and leisure opportunities to attract visitors. He hopes his method of retail will help future independent retailers, that are vital to Ripon’s future a chance to establish themselves.