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Economic recovery? Tell that to this Moira shop owner

Mandy Baxter always dreamt of running her own fashion boutique but, as she tells Stephanie Bell, the reality has proven a nightmare of spiralling overheads and rapidly dwindling profits

By Stephanie Bell

Every morning as she turns the lock on the door of her high street fashion boutique, Mandy Baxter has to draw a little bit deeper to find the strength to face the day ahead. It's a simple morning ritual that was once a pleasure – in a time when customers were a given and sales simply had to be totted up at the end of the day.

Nowadays with footfall down due to the surge in shopping online and at out-of-town retail centres, Mandy – like so many hundreds of other retailers across Northern Ireland – is struggling to keep her head above water.

She no longer dreams of big profits. Today the reality is about covering the mounting costs and selling enough to scrape through and avoid the unthinkable – turning the key in the shop door for the final time.

There is the pressure, too, to come up with ways to entice shoppers back so that after hours there is no longer the luxury of going home and putting your feet up.

When the shop closes at 5.30pm, Mandy's evenings are now spent stressing over ways to encourage more business – but with no money in the pot, grand marketing ideas are out of the question and she has had to depend solely on social networking sites for promotion.

Even when bedtime does come round, sleep, according to Mandy, eludes today's fearful and worried retailer.

Mandy's boutique, NewU@92 in Main Street, Moira, is one of those chic little independent boutiques which specialises in mid-market fashion for women aged 30-plus and up to size 22.

She says her dream of running her own business has turned into a nightmare, the worry of making ends meet now haunting her every waking hour and keeping her from sleeping long into the night.

Mandy is worn out battling to keep her shop open and insists she is not alone and that many of her fellow traders face the same challenges every day.

In a moving and honest insight into the life of a retailer in today's economy, Mandy reveals the terrible struggle just to keep the doors open.

She is also exasperated by the lack of support for retailers from local government and, in particular, her local council in Lisburn.

Mandy has been prompted to lay bare what she – and she says many of her fellow retailers – think by a new report claiming a 12.8% rise in the number of shoppers in our high streets, the highest recorded growth figure since December 2012.

The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium/Springboard Footfall figures suggested a renewed consumer confidence – but Mandy certainly isn't feeling it.

She says: "I was actually seething watching that report on the news. I know the media are trying to promote positivity but the truth is recovery is most certainly not happening in retail.

"I speak to retailers every day who are all extremely worried and stressed about lack of business. We simply don't know what to do anymore.

"I am not afraid to speak out and say what others are afraid to publicly admit – the high street is dying.

"I've gone home and cried at night it is so bad. I've spoken to retailers in Lisburn, Banbridge, Moira and Portadown who are all saying the same thing – it's not just me tearing my hair out.

"We are supposed to be in recovery but while Belfast might be getting a lift it is certainly not happening in the surrounding towns."

Mandy's insight into the retailer's day makes disturbing reading.

A single mum to two grown-up sons, Jordan (30) and Jake (21), she lives in Portadown and remortgaged her home six years ago to realise her dream of running her own shop.

She had worked in the shop formerly known as Pollini for a year and half prior to buying it and knew first-hand how busy and profitable it was.

Unfortunately for Mandy she bought the shop in March 2008 just when the recession struck.

She says: "I loved the shop and when the owner decided to sell up it was a massive step for me to buy it.

"From the moment I walked through the door of the shop it just felt right to me from that very first day as an employee.

"I still love it – when I get to do it.

"There is nothing pretentious about the shop, which is what I like. My customers know I will be 100% honest with them. If I think something doesn't look right on someone I will tell them to take it off. Everyone knows that if they go to Mandy she will not sell you something that is not right for you.

"I've built up so many friendships through the shop and made many close friends through the business."

Although she tries to approach each new morning with optimism, Mandy freely admits that as the day wears on that sense of hope fades no matter how hard she tries to believe that the next customer is just about to come through the door.

And there are many days when not a single person enters her shop and on the odd day when someone does, often they leave without spending any money.

Mandy says: "It's absolutely soul destroying that you can go a whole day and not have a single person come through the door.

"Just the chance to give a customer your personal service in the hope of having a satisfied customer leave the shop is what we pray for each day.

"Spending habits have completely changed. If a lady does like something she now has to think about it before she buys.

"I've even changed my labels to bring prices down to try and increase sales. It seems that women are spending money on their hair and beauty treatments now instead of clothes. Pamper therapy has replaced retail therapy.

"My sales are down 50% at least and there are no profits anymore. Every penny is going to pay the bills – rates, tax and VAT.

"I am determined not to give in. I still love what I do and am passionate about it but the reality is that I could lose my house if things don't pick up." Mandy (49) understands the convenience for many of shopping online from the comfort of home but feels strongly about the loss of the pleasure of browsing, chatting to shop staff and simply interacting face to face with another person.

The costs of having a high street presence mean it doesn't make economic sense for many retailers, but not only does Mandy love interacting with the customers but says she simply doesn't have the money to set up and run an online shop.

"Shops on the high street have high overheads," she says. "We have rent, rates, heat, insurance, electric, wages, stock in some cases, tax, VAT, credit card machine charges – we have to pay a fee for every time a customer uses a debit or credit card.

"Customers want discount and we feel pressured – we want to give a discount but it's not always possible.

"Do people ask the multinational stores for discount – the very ones that can afford it, the ones who put flash sales on all the time which in turn puts more pressure on independents?

"The retailer is not being mean, just trying to survive in hugely stressful economic times. At the end of a day the retailer counts the takings and stresses more on what to do next."

Mandy wants more support from local government which she feels should be spending more on promoting local towns.

She has successfully lobbied for car park signs for the village of Moira but so far hasn't been able to get anyone to consider improving parking facilities, which she thinks would make a huge difference to traders.

"In the Main Street in Moira parking is restricted to one hour which just isn't long enough for shoppers to give them time to browse and relax and have a cup of tea.

"Even if it was two hours that could make such a difference but we have been told that can't happen."

Mandy is doing everything she can to get customers. She photographs all of her new stock as it arrives in the shop and spends her evenings posting the pictures on her Facebook and Twitter accounts.

She offers fashion advice and tips online and spends hours every night updating her social media sites to ensure people know her shop is there.

She says: "The reality is that the retailer goes home feeling tired, frustrated, stressed, depressed and worried but when you get to the front door you paint a smile on again for your family.

"You sit in front of the TV, watching but not seeing. Then you sit in front of the computer searching for new ideas – new concepts to encourage business. You are trying to find ways that don't cost anything because the marketing pot of money has gone, it's empty.

"We use social media to get our names out there and also in the hope of gaining new customers from our efforts. It becomes an obsession to win more followers – it becomes something that you feel you can't ever stop. We can't take our eye off the ball for a second.

"Then you go to bed so tired and desperate for sleep just to escape from the worries for a few hours but you can't sleep as your brain won't switch off. The brain is still trying to come up with ideas and you toss and turn. The next morning you get up exhausted, get washed and dressed and go to work thinking 'This is it. Today is the day we will see signs of recovery on the high street'."

 

Why new super councils must help more

  • A grim picture of boarded-up shop fronts is rapidly becoming the norm in high streets throughout Northern Ireland as retailers pay the price for the recession and changing shopping habits
  • Northern Ireland not only has the highest number of vacant shops in the UK but at 21% is twice the average for the whole of the country
  • Most recent statistics by the British Retail Consortium show that one in five of our town centre shops has been forced to close
  • Helen Dickinson, BRC director general, said higher rates were deterring retailers from opening new premises, while lack of car parking is keeping customers away
  • As well as scores of small independent stores closing, many huge multi-nationals have also disappeared
  • In the last five years these have included familiar names such as Comet, JJB Sports, Clinton Cards, Game, Borders, Barratts, Alexon, TJ Hughes, Jane Norman, Habitat, Faith Shoes, Adams Childrenswear, Principles, Sofa Workshop, Allied Carpets, Woolworths, MFI, and Zavvi/Virgin Megastore to name but a few
  • In the last 12 months alone up until April 2014 in the UK, 25 companies have failed, shutting 402 shops and putting 3,111 people out of work
  • The figure is dramatically down on the previous year when 29 companies went to the wall with the closure of 2,500 shops with a loss of 25,140 jobs
  • Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA), said that retailers were now looking at the new councillors re-elected last week to put town centre redevelopment on top of their agendas
  • The NIIRTA has developed a blueprint for a strategy to help revive our high streets and while some progress has been made, Mr Roberts said:

"It's still very tough out there and while there is some recovery from the recession, in Northern Ireland it is still very slow.

"We need these new super councils to put a strategy in place to focus on town centres and we need the new councillors we elected last week to hit the ground running."

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