How Thirsk is trading its way to success

The Clocktower, Thirsk

The Clocktower, Thirsk - Credit: Joan Russell

Retail is the life’s blood of Yorkshire’s traditional market towns. Many have been keeping their customers satisfied for centuries, but not all have found it easy to negotiate the incursion of online and out-of-town shopping.

Some have started to buckle under the pressure. But not Thirsk. Instead, this savvy North Yorkshire market town has decided to look back to secure its future; echoing the extremely high levels of personal service that made independent traders the beating heart of their community in years gone by.

Modern retailers are going above and beyond what has unfortunately become the norm elsewhere to make sure their staff are well-informed, their shelves well-stocked and their customers well-valued.

‘We are traditional and proud of it,’ said Stephen Ranaghan, who runs Humphrey & Tilly in Market Place with his business partner David Pipes. ‘We provide handwritten receipts and our till is an old-fashioned wall-mounted wooden affair.

‘We are unashamedly going back to the good old days of retail, providing a breath of fresh air for people stifled by the modern world. You can go to most high streets and you could be anywhere – Leeds, Birmingham, wherever – because the shops are all exactly the same. Our aim is to be different.’

Humphrey & Tilly (named after the owners’ dogs) is the sort of store that gives ‘old-fashioned’ a good name. Housed in a former bank, complete with a safe in the original basement vault, it is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of rural pursuits, stocking everything from wax jackets and dog leads to ammunition and bespoke suits.

Stephen and David, who took over the shop four years ago and have since opened a ladies’ store just a few doors down, are at the forefront of a growing breed of traders working hard to make Thirsk a leading retail destination.

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‘There was a time when Thirsk was seen as little more than a stopping off point to somewhere else and we had more than our fair share of empty shops. But that’s changed,’ said Guy Baragwanath, chairman of Thirsk & District Business Association. ‘We are now very much a destination in our own right.

‘Local businesses are very good as publicising themselves and their neighbours on social media. They know we have to work together to prosper together.’

Attractions like the World of James Herriot, Thirsk Museum, The Courthouse and the Ritz bring visitors in but the challenge to the town’s traders is to keep them there once their hour of free parking is up.

‘The key is to offer people something they can’t get anywhere else,’ said Jane Jackson, owner of luxury fashion store Well Heeled in Market Place. ‘I saw a gap in the market and I filled it. There were ladies across the area looking for a shop like this – I know because I was one of them. Women are now delighted they don’t have to travel.’

She previously rented smaller premises round the corner but snapped up a chance to buy a building in a prime central Market Place spot in July 2013.

‘New businesses like us help to keep the town vibrant,’ Jane continued. ‘But, to be honest, we all help each other. My customers don’t just pop in here and leave town; they visit the other shops, spending more time and money in and around the centre.

‘We’re in it together here. You just don’t get this level of service and choice in bigger towns. It’s what makes Thirsk unique.’

The town also has the major bonus of accessibility. It has great transport links and, if people choose to use their own cars, parking is free for the first hour and just 50p for the next.

‘We have a stash of change so we can pay the 50p for customers – it’s not worth losing business over, is it?’ said Stephen of Humphrey & Tilly. ‘People crave good old-fashioned service like that. We’re not embarrassed to say we’re old-fashioned – we see it as a positive advantage.

‘Our business, like Thirsk itself, is constantly evolving. In this town, you don’t count it as a result until a customer comes back a second time.’