SPECIAL REPORT: Let’s all support our independents! The perils and pleasures of setting up shop in Aylesbury

Rocky and Kook, in Temple Street, Aylesbury
Rocky and Kook, in Temple Street, Aylesbury
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Independent shops are often the hidden gem of any high street but have you ever stopped to think about how they survive - and do you support them?

Aylesbury is home to a few. There’s good examples like the Open All Hours-esque Ashco hardware store in High Street which celebrated its 20th year in business in August.

Ash Madhani of Asco

Ash Madhani of Asco

But for every success there’s also the flip-side misery of vacant shop fronts and broken ventures which languished in this ever-competitive market place which also now includes the internet shopping behemoths.

What are the biggest struggles they face?

Vintage and retro clothes shop Rocky & Kook in Temple Street is approaching its 
first birthday later this
 month.

The mother-and-daughter team which owns the shop, Kay and Ruby Lewis, have raised concerns about high business rates being one of the barriers for independents to overcome.

It was revealed in the summer the shop was paying higher rates than some banks in the area and although it subsequently got a rates relief, it’s only a reprieve.

They even thought of moving to another town with cheaper rates but decided to stick with it because Aylesbury is their home town.

Ruby said: “There is no help available for small businesses. By the time you’ve paid for the rates, rents, stock; there’s not much left.”

Despite this, the shop is gaining traction. “It’s a slow burn,” added Ruby. “We need to make people aware of where we are and we’ve had to get creative, using things like social media to spread the word.”

But the strongest suit - and it’s a thread running through every shop-owner interviewed for this feature - is customer service.

“We try to look after our customers. We stay open late, give them a one-to-one service, we want it to be a unique place for people to shop.

“We want them to have a great experience and come back again and again.”

Another independent which favours the service-first approach is the Balloon Mania party supplies shop based at Duck Farm Court on the outskirts of town.

The shop will be celebrating its 14th year in business on January 1 next year.

Owner Maria Richardson, who lives in Aylesbury, said: “Customer service has to be second to none.

“I’ll open up especially for my customers outside of normal hours and pick things up from their home.

“The other day I had someone here who didn’t have any cash and items under £10 can’t be paid by credit card.

“I let her walk away with the items and said ‘just bring the cash in on another day’.

“They looked at me like I’d grown a second head. You have to bend over backwards.”

She says one of the biggest battles is trying to compete on price with big supermarkets and multi-national card shops in town.

“Sometimes Tesco will be selling plates, cups and napkins as a loss-leader.

“They’ll be cheaper to buy there then it costs for me to get them in.

“I’ve even been honest to my customers and sent them there because it’s a better deal for them.”

Ian Hine, who owns the five-year-old Dead Universe comic book store at the Friars Square shopping centre, could probably pen a novel or three about retail theory.

He has some fascinating theories about what makes a small business successful 
and is bullish about the prospects for Aylesbury’s independents.

“He thinks more should take the plunge and go for it.

He has sensed a shifting of mood in the 2016 consumer - one more savvy about where their precious pounds ends up.

“The Starbucks and Google tax scandals, the global crash, and the stories about big banks and supermarkets - people are more aware of these things now.

“ It was a wake-up call.

“I remember when there used to be an independent record store in Aylesbury but people would still go to HMV even if prices were cheaper at the independent.

“Of course, everyone is sad when the independent closes down - but did you actually go to shop there?

“But I think nowadays, people are more socially aware. We’ve been very lucky here. We get so much love.”

The shop has networked extensively with the gaming community and one of the keys to his success is truly knowing the customer.

“You get back what you put in,” he adds.

They also do as much for charity as possible “not for marketing reasons but because it’s the right thing to do”, says Ian.

He adds: “We’ve thought outside the box. We’ve done it our own way. I’ve read all the retail theories and strategies but we’ve ripped those up and haven’t done what is normal.”

Another recent success story for our independents is The Works restaurant in Market Square.

Roger Boulton and wife Elaine opened the eatery in November 2014.

The business has been thriving - to such an extent that a second The Works will now be opening in High Wycombe.

Roger, who has more than 30 years’ experience in 
the food industry, said it is due to open around November-time.

The Herald contacted Cllr Steve Bowles, the Aylesbury Vale District Council deputy leader and portfolio holder for economic delivery, but he was overseas and unable to talk.

However, he said in August: “The council is not in a position to subsidise commercial ventures. “Small independent retailers which survive are those which ultimately offer something which customers value.

“Rate discounts can help but they aren’t sustainable, but we are doing all we 
can to assist retailers in the high street in Aylesbury 
Vale.”

The theory espoused by all the shops interviewed here is that good customer service begets good word of mouth 
and - hopefully - further custom and that will enable them to keep their heads above water.

As Ian puts it: “People talk Aylesbury down but I think it has a lot going for it.

“Consumer confidence is higher than the mainstream media portrays. It’s a different climate now.

“More independent shops should take a risk and throw themselves in at the deep end,” Ian added.