In the past couple of years, the local business communities in Ireland have ramped up their engagement with other businesses on Twitter. There are numerous hashtags for numerous locations around the country where, for one hour a week, businesses get together online and throw around stories, publicise their business and offer support, and indeed entertainment, to other businesses in their area.
I have dabbled in these groups in the past to some extent without really committing. More recently however I decided to get more involved in my own local group – #NewryHour. Every Tuesday from 9-10pm, I get on Twitter and listen, ask questions and (hopefully) offer some value and help to the community.
Twitter comes in to its own in these groups I think. It has always been the biggest open cocktail party on the internet; you can literally go on and talk to anyone that’s using it. But these groups really help to narrow the focus for people.
As a business, you can gain a lot from being “at the party”. Whether it’s insights, leads, opportunities to connect and collaborate with other business or members of the community – it’s all possible in these forums.
So, with all this opportunity available to us, what do I hope to gain from using these groups?
I’m not there to gain. I’m there to give.
I like to think I know myself pretty well. I know where I can offer value to people and where I can’t. If you need help putting up a shelf or baking bread, I’m not your man. I’m really, really shit at that stuff. If I got involved in either of those activities, death or injury are both likely outcomes.
Now, if you need advise on ways to finance your business, to save tax, to increase your margins, to sell or buy a business, to manage your VAT and payroll – that’s right up my street. Some people get in to business because they’re great sales people, great at making things, great artists. The finance is something people pick up to some degree as they go along. But they seldom become experts in it to the extent that they are when it comes to building an app or building a house. And that’s fine; it’s not practical to do that. That’s the very reason accountants exist. We are the support team.
So, I go on to #NewryHour to offer support. To offer an opinion (or a second opinion). To offer help, in whatever form that may take – an introduction, a chat, a coffee, a recommendation, whatever. Just to help. Business is tough. Anyone that tells you any different is a liar. So if I can help in 140 characters on Twitter or in 30 minutes on the phone afterwards, I’m happy to do so.
I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that we all have to give more than we receive. So I’m giving now because in 6 months or 6 days I might need help. Call it karma, call it not being an asshole, I think it’s just part of life and living in a community.
What I’ve found surprising though, is just how much community you can find in a simple hashtag.
#NewryHour happens every Tuesday between 9-10pm. Everyone is welcome. It’s not just about businesses, it’s about the whole community – schools, charities, groups – everyone can get involved. So please do. Tweet #NewryHour
Since the onset of the recession, high streets across the country have struggled to keep tenants. From the loss of “the big guys” such as Woolworths, JJB Sports, Game and HMV to name but a few, to the high turnover of new local start-ups and the closure of some long standing, local landmark businesses – it’s been a tough journey.
The consensus seems to be that that journey is coming to an end. I agree with this to a certain extent for certain sectors. But when we come down to a local level, on the face of it, there is still work to be done.
Newry’s Creamery Quarter (Monaghan Street to Monaghan Row) and Cathedral Quarter (Hill Street to John Mitchell Place) were for years central to the local economy. However, a walk down either is an unfortunate eyesore of empty units, to-let signs and fewer and fewer people.
So how do we reverse this trend? There are a lot of elements in the mix here that add up to the problem; more than I will discuss or claim to know much about. But for my part, I think there are some practical things we can do.
1. Incentivise and de-risk entrepreneurship.
Ok, point number one is a mouthful, but very relevant. I had a conversation with a couple of colleagues in the past fortnight about the exact topic of this article and we spoke about the building Woolworths used to trade in and about the number of empty units on Hill Street. The consensus was that “they should do something with those buildings”. But who are they? The landlords? What can they do? If no-one is interested in renting them, what else can they do?
No, “they” are the entrepreneurs. The current and future business owners. The guy that wants to open a bookshop one day, or the couple that want to run their own travel agents or the mum who makes the best cakes in the world but wouldn’t dare dream of starting a business. There’s not enough incentive and too much risk.
Incentive is probably mainly a personal thing. If running your own business isn’t a big dream of yours, you probably won’t do it no matter what other carrots are dangled in front of you, and that’s fine. But for the ones who do dream of taking the leap but stop short we need something extra. And I’m not talking about grants or other sources of funding. I’m talking about the intangibles – the mentoring, support and advice of the people in business. From the planning stage, to opening the doors on day one and beyond.
I was at an event in Newry & Mourne Enterprise Agency and Conor Patterson, the Chief Executive, used a great word in his speech – co-opitition. Cooperative competition. I think, to a certain extent this is happening in Newry. Business owners, by proximity or otherwise, know each other and talk and work together on certain things, all the while competing for the same trade. The logic behind this has a lot of validity – if my shop is packed with customers, yours is also more likely to be packed too and vice-versa.
This co-opetition would be a real kick-start to the next raft of entrepreneurs looking to move in to those empty units. It would probably happen organically anyway but I think to explicitly and formally set-up something like this and let people know it’s happening might just bring those considering starting a business out of the woodwork.
This access to local expertise also goes some way to de-risk the process. But removing the risk from going in to business is tricky. Some risk cannot be mitigated. Another recession is beyond our control, bank lending policies are beyond our control, interest rates are beyond our control. But some risks can be dealt with. One of the main ones, which is closely linked to the problem being addressed here is premises, which leads me to my next point…
2. We need landlords who get it.
Efforts are being made by landlords to get properties let. But for the most part it’s not helping. Three month rent free periods and one year leases are not enough it would seem. And I can understand why. If you want to take a punt on a business idea, it’s scary to think that if you close the doors six months in, you still have to pay rent and rates for another six months with potentially no income for a number of weeks or months.
I also feel for the landlords as well. Vacant rates discounts have fallen (if not gone??) and if they still owe money on the mortgage the bank still want it whether there is a tenant or not.
I think the solution here, or part of it, is for both parties to give up just a bit more than they think they are willing to. It can only really be looked at on a case by case basis, but if a start-up could get a three month lease and had no rent to pay but covered the rates they would have the opportunity to test their trade and, if it worked, keep going and start paying rent.
The landlord should see this as an investment in the individual who had the balls to give it a go. Now the above scenario obviously doesn’t suit if your business idea is a coffee shop with a £30k fit out cost. But pop-up shops, retail trades that just need a space and some racks and shelves, they could really gain from this. And if they get some traction and keep going then we all win. We’re in to job creation, tourism benefits, aesthetic benefits, and who knows what else.
Ideally, the incentive for the landlords would come from Land & Property Services via their rates bill; a discount, a credit, a free month, something to recognise that they are trying to help their local economy. I don’t see that happening however. Rates go up and only up it seems. LPS and local authorities are unreceptive, unresponsive and uninterested in any pleas for reductions. Maybe one day…
3. We need to reclaim Newry Market.
When I was a child, I used to go Newry Market with my parents. Almost every Saturday we wandered about the stalls with the throngs of other shoppers. If I let go of my mum or dads hand, I was a goner. I’d be lost among the masses.
A walk through the market nowadays is a rather depressing affair. Many stalls are empty. Those that aren’t are terrible. For the most part it’s tat. Some of the stalls are still quite good selling homemade breads & cakes, fresh produce, fish and flowers. But mainly it’s awful. And the worst part is, it has so much potential.
To my mind, there’s no reason why Newry can’t have it’s own version of St. Georges Market in Belfast. I know for a fact that we have some fantastic local food producers, local artists, local craftsmen and women that could really up the standard of Newry Market; people and products that would bring customers in the gates.
And wouldn’t this be a great place for potential entrepreneurs to perfect their craft? A low cost, low risk chance for the girl that makes wedding bouquets to bring them along for sale or order; for the florist who can’t afford premises to begin to build the business; for the local artists to build a reputation and sell their creations. I really think this is one of the biggest missed opportunities in the CIty. But it would take a “mass invasion”, 10-20 willing participants to go in there say once a month, publicise it and do what we can to resurrect this local landmark.
4. Creamery & Cathedral Quarters have free public Wi-Fi. Use it!
A couple of years back I was part of a group of local business people and politicians who approached the council about trying to implement free public Wi-Fi throughout the city. It has been up and running for over a year now (albeit Newry & Mourne District Council did zero to publicise the fact).
This is quite an exciting asset for the area, especially for tourism/tourists. It aids businesses marketing efforts via social media and opens up the doors to any amount of creative marketing strategies such as Phlok, Dealtronic and other such platforms which help incentivise businesses and consumers to shop local.
Over and above just making the most of the WiFi, businesses should make the most of the internet in general. This isn’t particularly specific to the Cathedral and Creamery Quarters but worth mentioning.
A significant cost to many small businesses is obsolete and surplus stock. Many go with the traditional big discount sale when they can realise much higher margins by flogging this stock online – typically around 70-80% of RRP as opposed to 50% when going down the traditional sale route.
For some of the more niche products, there are great websites like Etsy out there to give retailers another low cost outlet for selling stock. Even if you are not particularly tech savvy, there are (local) companies out there that will sell your stuff for you on a commission basis – check out Cargobox.
By embracing online retail for a local level, retailers will actually help mitigate one of their main threats. If Amazon is diverting your customers attention away from you, use it to get it back and then some.
Social media is a huge thing for local businesses too. Many within the town use it and use it well. I could write a blog post on local businesses using social media alone. In short though I think all businesses have their space on social media and should experiment to find out what works well for them. The return to be gained from social media can be different things for different businesses. Some might see the results in their sales, some might just see the value in adding value to their existing customers. Be realistic in your expectations however and, perhaps most critically of all, engage with your customers. Don’t just be a shop window – be the shop keeper; be personable.
5. Carbane Development
This could be the knock-out blow to a lot of local businesses. If this dubious development goes ahead, it will further pull people out of the city centre – that’s a no brainer.
Ok, so 800 jobs are going to be created. But most studies seem to show that out of town developments result in a net loss of jobs. Ok, so it will increase spending in the area. But spending a quid in one of these multi-national stores results in approximately 5p going back into the local economy. Compare this with spending a quid with your small independent local retailer where around 75p goes back in to the local economy and you quickly see how, while spending might increase, the cash is actually being stripped from the local economy.
Aside from the shop local debate, the decision to create a site where ASDA can go seems poorly thought out. Between Tesco, Sainsburys, Dunnes, Fiveways, SuperValu, and two Lidl stores, local supermarkets would already appear to be eating each other’s dinners. Throwing another one in to the mix would further dilute the food retail sector in the city.
I actually think that in order to offset the threat of this development, we need to proactively try to attract some of these bigger retailers on to Hill Street. They will be guys who will bring people on to the street. The idea was never to stop them from turning up – the idea was to bring them in on terms and in locations that were in the interests of the area, its economy and its heritage. But in order to attract them the area needs to be shown as attractive in the first place. Kind of a chicken and egg scenario here.
I have no solutions for this threat to our city centre. Well nothing new I’m afraid. We can petition, talk to Minister Mark Durkan who approved the development, hassle the Council, kick up a fuss etc. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that weren’t enough. If it goes ahead, counteractive measures might be all the arsenal we have.
Newry is not unique in being a town where the local high street is struggling. In fact it’s probably gotten off lightly compared to many others. But that doesn’t change the fact that something needs done about this. The recession picked off a lot of businesses over the course of the past 6 years. I think it would be a shame for those that weathered the storm to fall now because of out-of-town developments, unaffordable rents and rates and, perhaps most cruelly, because the are part of the cycle of business closure/decreasing footfall. The more business that close in the Cathedral/Creamery Quarters, the less people will go there and so on. This cycle won’t just hurt our local traders though. It will have it’s knock on effect on the library, charities, taxi drivers, banks. The whole supply chain gets hit.
These areas of our city mean a lot to a lot of people. The people that own these businesses, work in them, shop in them or supply them. Some have been around as long as I can remember, some are new to the party but fit in well. I would love to see these Quarters really thriving however. Busy, bustling street of shoppers, coffee drinkers, families, tourists. A vast array of grocers and restaurants and crafts stores and jewellers and coffee shops and music stores and butchers and bakers and candle stick makers. No to-let signs. No empty units. Ok, so potentially no estate agents as they gradually go out of business but, you know what they say – every war has its casualties 🙂
To find out more about the Cathedral & Creamery Quarters including history of the area, news, what’s on, what to do and where to stay, visit Hello Newry