The best of Ripley and Heanor
Ashley Franklin visits two traditional county towns and discovers a variety of independent traders offering the best in 'personal service and customer care'
These are testing times for the High Street with the lure of giant supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks now being joined by the internet. It is even more difficult for Ripley and Heanor. Neither has the attractiveness of those county towns which appeal to visitors for reasons other than shopping.
Ripley and Heanor have also seen major retailers pull out in recent years. However, in leaving each town with largely independent retailers, this may be the Unique Selling Point they can work on. This is the view of Sarah Acikgoz who just under two years ago launched thebestof Heanor and Ripley. Ironically, this is primarily an internet-based business yet it has already helped bring the two towns together and could well be one of its saviours. Sarah’s company is already one of the most successful of this country’s thebestof town franchises. This is evident when you meet her: she is savvy and switched on and, importantly, passionate and positive about Ripley and Heanor: ‘Both are fine examples of traditional Derbyshire market towns which also have excellent transport links with easy access to both the M1 and A38. Also, with Ripley and Heanor only four miles apart and a wealth of businesses lining the route between them in places like Codnor and Loscoe, plus the fact that there are shops in Ripley that you can’t find in Heanor, and vice-versa, we have huge potential to keep local spend within our area. It’s all too easy to knock your town but much harder to shout up against the crowd and say: “You know what? Our town is amazing!” You have to accentuate the positives.’
So what are the positives of thebestof Heanor and Ripley? As Sarah explains: ‘Essentially, I help local businesses raise their profile and build their reputations, be it online, through social media or physically out and about around the area.’
Sarah has 60 members so far and, encouragingly, all businesses have to prove they are worthy of recognition before Sarah takes them on. What is also encouraging is that the website has up to 7,500 views per month – nearly 10,000 at peak times of the year – with visitors both searching for businesses and recommending them.
‘Footfall at Langley Mill Flooring increased by 40 per cent in the first two weeks of being with us,’ states Sarah, ‘and many businesses had an enquiry within a day or two of going live on the site. Feedback from local people is tremendous; they love the fact that there is a voice out there actively rooting out everything that’s great about Heanor and Ripley and making all that accessible to the community in one dynamic, interactive platform.’
Sarah admits that trade in Heanor and Ripley is struggling but she feels there is a ‘quiet renaissance in independent shops’ which I certainly felt in Ripley. It was encouraging to hear the repeat of the mantra beloved of independent traders, namely ‘personal service’ and ‘customer care.’
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Fortunately for Ripley’s future as a shopping centre, ‘repeat customers’ and ‘word of mouth recommendation’ are two other oft-heard phrases from retailers I met. This is evident from the presence of long-established family shops like England Barker. ‘Most shops like ours know people by their first names,’ Tony England points out. ‘You don’t get that in the cities.’
One factor behind England Barker’s survival is useful advice to any retailer: ‘Keep a variety of stock and keep moving with the times,’ states Tony, helped by the shop now having a refurbished first floor showroom, and one service that helps keep them in business is in-house repairs. ‘Try getting that online,’ smiles Tony.
Walking further down Grosvenor Road into another traditional shop, Fowlers, David Melbourne made a similar good point: ‘You can’t get personal service on the internet.’ David and his brother Jim have seen a lot of customer satisfaction: between them, they have over 100 years’ experience. Opened as a music shop by their grandfather Albert Fowler in 1904, the shop continues to sell instruments, mainly catering for beginners, especially guitarists – ukuleles are popular currently, David points out – though they have diversified into top-of-the-range hi-fi and TVs.
An even older business still going is Hurst’s the chemists, which opened in 1855; and Ripley wouldn’t be the same without Clarke’s, a rarity in the retail world in being a family-run department store, which last year celebrated its centenary.
Premier Blinds, which sells distinctive, quality blinds and curtains of every conceivable colour and style, is also family-run – by husband and wife Grant and Linda Alldread. Linda highlights another advantage High Street stores have over online shopping: ‘When customers buy blinds or curtains – and I think it’s true of any product you have fitted in the house – they like to come in and both feel the material and meet the people who are going to come into their home.’
That point will be fully endorsed by Richard Stone, the owner for nearly 30 years of Hardwick Stone, which sells high quality fireplaces in a wide range of natural materials. Richard points to another pertinent advantage for small, independent traders: ‘We are a small company which doesn’t sell from a catalogue – in fact, we make a lot of our own fireplaces – so we can continually adapt.’ He mentions another way in which ‘small is beautiful’ is that repeat customers can be served by the same trader who dealt with them in the first place.
Another strong factor is the reputation of the independent trader, as pointed out by Ian Bax of Roy Jervis, which specialises in used, low-mileage motorcycles along with scooters and bicycles. ‘Everyone here is passionate and knowledgeable about bikes,’ remarks Ian.
There is that same experience, expertise and enthusiasm at Whites, the jewellers, established in 1884 and run for the last 12 years by Steve and Debbie Massey. Steve is a highly qualified gemmologist with nearly 35 years in the trade and, along with the shop dealing in jewellery brands like Pandora, Troll, Nomination and Diamonfire, it offers a repair service, engraving and valuations.
For the last 15 years, Neil Cartledge has run DMS – Derby Mobility Services – which sells mobile scooters, wheelchairs, bathing and toileting aids, riser recliner chairs and stairlifts. His established name and personal service ethos give him, he says, a clear advantage in a business where there are ‘a lot of cold-calling rogue traders’. DMS can also offer a repair service. It’s rewarding work, too: ‘It’s a pleasure to do business with people whose lives you have restored by giving them more independence and freedom,’ says Neil.
A healthy sign of a town centre in this uncertain clime is the presence of shops that opened during the recession. In Ripley, I spotted two within a few doors of each other on Church Street: The Bridal Lounge, which showcases five top designers including Sophia Tolli and Lou Lou; and Depledge & Wood, which specialises in discontinued, out of production and scarce china and glassware. Also recently opened is Inspired Interiors, an attractively laid-out Aladdin’s Cave full of stylish, tasteful furniture and home accessories. ‘Wendy has such a good eye,’ says Susan McNeill of her manager Wendy Clarke, which one can discern from everything on display, be they cushions, candles, fragrance lamps, wall and table art or any of the other multifarious giftware.
In between Ripley and Heanor, there is the famous Doll’s House Emporium, the world’s leading suppliers of doll’s houses and miniatures. For life-size elegance, there is Butterley Grange Mansion, the private home of entrepreneur Tim Godkin, a Graceland inspired mansion set within a 15 acre estate. It’s fast becoming a popular wedding venue, not least for having the largest bridal suite in the country.
Lumb Farm has recently undergone refurbishment and now offers a full Wedding Day Service along with its conference facilities and restaurant. Also recently refurbished is The Marquis of Ormonde in Codnor which looks set to be an even bigger draw with its tasteful new decor and popular carvery.
Although Ripley’s market has diminished in recent years, it can take encouragement from the trend-bucking regeneration of Heanor’s market following the transfer of the market licence to Heanor Traders’ Association. Stall occupancy has increased, there is now a monthly Community Fair for home-based, micro and art and craft businesses, and there are plans to add a continental market and farmers’ market. This has happily coincided with a Love Heanor campaign which has, according to Sarah Acikgoz, ‘generated massive community spirit’.
With luck the campaign will help overcome the problem of empty units in Heanor’s town centre – there are several in Ripley, too – though it’s less concerning than it appears as many retailers ceased trading due to increased rents rather than failing businesses. Landlords have been called upon to be ‘more realistic’ with their charges.
Of its niche outlets, Heanor has Magic & Moonbeams which sells crystals, gifts, jewellery candles, lotions, potions and incense and offers complementary therapies; the art and craft shop Sue’s Handcrafted Supplies; and Field Photographic which this year celebrates 25 years of high quality wedding, portrait and commercial photography.
This is the 15th anniversary year for Heanor Antiques Centre where you can happily get lost in the labyrinthine passageways and rooms which house around 250 dealers. ‘The beauty of this place,’ states owner Jane Richards, ‘is that there is something for everyone’s tastes and pockets, whether you want to spend a few pounds on cigarette cards or Corgi cars, tens of pounds on pottery, jewellery or glass, through to four-figure sums for a stunning grandfather clock.’ There is also a craft centre and café.
There are antiques of a special kind in a shop which doubles as a museum – of vacuum cleaners. Mr Vacuum Cleaner is James Brown who is now in his second year in the town. In selling re-conditioned vacuums and offering repairs, he clearly has the added attraction of a display of over 50 models of vacuums from 1919 onwards. James has 320 vacuums overall including the largest collection in the world of Kirby cleaners – ‘the Rolls-Royce of vacuums,’ James points out.
Clearly, Heanor and Ripley need something of a vacuum clean to counter the drop in custom. Work could be done to highlight Ripley’s heritage. How many more visitors would come if there was a heritage centre showcasing Benjamin Outram and the Butterley story? And how many people know there are plaques in the town commemorating the birthplace of Barnes Wallis and Harry Webb’s first concert as Cliff Richard?
However, before attracting visitors, Ripley and Heanor need to claw their way out of the downturn. Sarah Acikgoz is cautiously confident: ‘Yes, both towns need a facelift, with more greenery, local information points and other decorations to make them more welcoming. It’s good that both towns have focal areas in their market places, and Ripley also has a pedestrianised shopping street. However, we need to fill vacant shop units and in some cases install new shop fronts. A revival, though, will be dependent upon attracting new shops and investors into the towns but we need to show that there is sufficient interest and footfall to make it worthwhile. ‘Shop Local’ is key: for every £1 spent locally, around 50p–70p is re-circulated back to the community. An extra purchase or two per week could have a huge impact and if we can get Heanor and Ripley back into business, we can start attracting visitors from outside the area. I still believe we have yet to see the best of Heanor and Ripley.’