From cafes to bars and gift shops to clothes boutiques, Harrogate is enjoying a golden age of independent shops.
Residents and tourists alike regularly praise the town’s vast and diverse array of independent shops and restaurants that line high street, alongside the expected chains.
However, in recent weeks the town has sadly waved goodbye to a number of its cherished independents, including The Nines, Valtiara and Heaven Independent Cafe.
In March, independent gift shop Molly Mocculs announced that it would be closing its store on Beulah Store as they could no longer afford to pay the overheads.
While Harrogate is truly spoilt by its independents, and does indeed cherish them, these recent closures are a stark reminded of the real challenges facing the stores.
Overheads, business rates and competition from chains are just some of the barriers independents face, as well as actually advertising themselves to shoppers.
The Harrogate Advertiser is launching a campaign to highlight these challenges whilst shining a light on the multitude of well-respected and well-loved indies to shoppers across the town.
Over the coming weeks the Harrogate Advertiser will examine the different cafes, restaurants, pubs and shops on offer and find out what makes them so unique and invaluable.
Harrogate loves Indie
Across the country, chains have started to dominate the high streets with shoppers unable to turn a corner without being greeted by a Starbucks or Primark.
While chains do have a home in Harrogate, it seems our shoppers hold a special place in their hearts for the independent shops that give our town its character.
Residents responded in their droves when asked on Facebook what they love most about their independents and the responses were as varied as the shops themselves.
Cath Burnett said: “I think the big difference using an independent is customer service and quality. Most shop owners will deliver excellent customer service as they have to go keep their business going and the quality is usually better.”
Suzanne Lister Pegg said: “The independents are the life blood to a town, they make the high street unique to anywhere else. We should help sustain the little places by giving our custom to them, otherwise they close and get replaced by a chain.”
Sonja Louise Milnes said: “They make harrogate authentic rather than being the same as othwer big towns and cities with all the same chain stores. Plus they bring choice with the products they are selling.”
Why Harrogate is in an Indie golden age
Tourists have long been flocking to Harrogate for a day of wandering round the town’s collection of independent boutiques and cafes; but now the bars have got in on the
North Bar and The Champagne Concept have joined the likes of 10 Devonshire Place and Major Tom’s Social to make Harrogate’s indie bar scene compete with its city rivals.
Alex Hewitt is managing director of a company called The Best of Harrogate which promotes the top choices of shops around the town to residents searching for their new favourite indie.
She said: “We are really lucky in Harrogate to have a vast range of independent retailers but it’s the old saying. If we don’t use them we will lose them.
“They make our high street interesting and make the town unique. You get a great range of items and the difference is the things you find, you won’t get the same items in
“Visitors come to Harrogate for the shops but people also come on conference and may spend an afternoon having a look round the shops. Those people really help the shops because they are on spending mode.”
Challenges facing independents
Harrogate may love its independents and, judging from the ever evolving make up of shops across the town, it appears that feeling is mutual.
But, like any profession, the businesses are not without their problems and must work tirelessly attracting new customers and keeping their regulars to survive.
Ms Hewitt urged residents to make more use of their independent shops but also explained there was a problem of landlords’ eagerness in letting properties to rival
Sandra Doherty, president of town’s Chamber of Trade said that the rise of online shopping was making it difficult for independents as well as the high overheads they face.
She said: “The problem is the overheads are so expensive. In my business, my gas and electric bills have gone through the roof. My water and gas bill has increased by about four times in 10 years.
“Smaller shops don’t have the buying power of the bigger shops. I want to buy in quality goods but it’s now so expensive, it makes you just want to go to the cash and carry.
“People come to Harrogate to shop and look at the different shops but if we lose these shops we will be in a lot of trouble.
“We need to be looking at shopping locally. It’s far too easy to go online and order what you like.
“We have all got a bit lazy.”
Paul Rawlinson, owner of independent Baltzersens cafe, writes a blog about the independent scene in Harrogate and said the business rates situation also needed reviewing.
Business rates applied to commercial properties are based on the value of the property and the annual rate of inflation. They are currently set by local government and collected locally by Harrogate Borough Council.
However, in his March budget, George Osborne revealed that small business rate relief had been permanently doubled from 50 per cent to 100 per cent on properties with a rateable value of £12,000 or below.
This means that 600,000 small business will pay no rates, saving them almost £6,000 a year.
Mr Osborne also announced in October last year that councils could retain all the money they raise from business rates to cope with the loss of central government grants by 2020.
The move means that councils can decide how to spend that revenue and can lower rates to attract new business but Coun Graham Swfit said the council would be reluctant to do this.
Coun Swift, cabinet member for Tourism, Economic Development and Enterprise, said: “We are very reluctant to make exceptions for business rates.
"That’s money we’re losing that could be going back into the town. It penalises the rest of the town and we don’t want to do that sort of thing.”
What the council is doing
Shopping is a valued sector for Harrogate Borough Council’s economy and with just 7.5 per cent of retails vacant across the town, it’s easy to see why.
Coun Swift explained that the council has a number of plans in place to help the town’s businesses and keep attracting the customers they rely on.
He said: “We make sure Harrogate is a vibrant town, with great floral projects. We also keep Harrogate top of mind by doing big events.
"We did the Big Bike Bash after the Tour de France and we have programmes planned for the future to make sure people want to visit Harrogate.
“This is important because these are the retailers customers, it’s those sorts of things that keep the town vibrant which is good for the shops.”
Coun Swift also explained that more than 400 companies had used the council’s Enterprise Gateway programme which helps any small business wanting to open in the district.
He also explained that the Harrogate Town Centre Masterplan was the council’s next big project aimed at improving the town centre and ‘ensure Harrogate’s economic prosperity’.
What more can be done?
The old adage associated with independent shops is a ‘use them or lose them’ warning to residents but Baltzersens’ owner has challenged this long-established view.
Instead, Mr Rawlinson accepts the choice of independents has improved but stressed it is the businesses themselves that need to focus on what they can do better.
He said: “People are busy, they have their own lives so we have to make it easy for them. They don’t have to look out for your business, you have to put together your best
“You can’t blame other people for living their lives like that. You have to focus on what you’re doing and make sure it’s the best it can be to entice people to come back.
“We are in a good place food and drink wise for independents and there’s a couple of new things opening over a couple of months.
“But a lot of people will just go to a chain and get the level of quality they are expecting. You can’t blame them for not being willing to take that risk.”
Despite owning his own independent business, Mr Rawlinson’s blog highlights and recommends other bars and restaurants in Harrogate, urging shoppers to try them out.
Rather than seeing this as promoting his rivals, he explained that it’s what the independent community should be doing to support and advertise each other.
He said: “It’s no skin off my nose to promote other people’s business. People don’t want to eat at the same place all the time so it’s not a problem.
“Chains are so well known so it’s important we promote and advertise the independents.
“If we can all get together and put our collective voice together, put all our twitter followers together and we would have a bigger following than some of the chains.
“We’re a community and if you want any customer to support you then I think we should all do our bit to support each other.”
Have your say. Email Dan.Windham@jpress.co.uk