Bury St Edmunds shop Koti is behind our Love Local campaign
Independent traders coming into a town are often faced with a tough choice: Set up in a popular spot, and pay a premium in rent or business rates; Or save money by establishing somewhere quieter but then be prepared for lower footfall.
Long-time friends Bev Swain and Tamara Rothwell would love for their chic homewear shop Koti to be alongside other independent retailers in St John’s Street or big brands in Buttermarket. But when the pair went into business last year, it was clear this was not possible.
“The hardest thing was finding a unit as many of the empty shops are massive and we needed somewhere affordable,” Bev said. “We would do phenomenally well on St John’s Street or closer to the town centre because we have not had one bad comment. But you’re looking at quadruple the price plus higher bills and electricity.”
The two women have been friends for around four years, through previous retail jobs. Koti (Finnish for ‘home’) was born out of a phone conversation that led to the pair becoming co-managers.
Their dream was to open a shop unlike anything else in Bury St Edmunds. And, as its customers would testify, the quirky selection of homewear, Scandinavian wood interior, environmental focus and friendly service help Koti stand apart.
They opened last June in Langton Place, a small shopping arcade that links Hatter Street and Whiting Street, ‘knowing footfall was bad’ – despite their shop being just a few minutes’ walk from the considered town centre.
Bev said: “It was more about cost than anything else. There was not a lot about. We needed to be sensible. This came available and it’s a lovely nice cluster of shops. It’s like a family unit. But the challenge is encouraging the footfall. People forget about it, but you are literally seconds from the centre.”
Tamara added: “There is not a lot round here but once we have got people they come back.”
The pair agree that in retail it is not a case of ‘if we build it, they will come’. Instead they have spotted a trend in the mindset of Bury’s regular shoppers they feel needs changing if the town centre is to be protected.
Bev said: “We find a lot of our customers are tourists, they tend to wander. If you don’t know a town you’ll have a look down streets, but people who live here just do what they need to do and then go home.”
Tamara added: “The best weekend we have had was when the Christmas market stretched all the way down here – it was phenomenal.”
In the months it has been open, Koti has won rave reviews and seen many a happy customer praise the shop on its Facebook page – where it enjoys a five star rating. But the problem many small shops are facing is not that customers do not like their products, but that too few know their existence.
This is why Bev and Tamara are backing Love Local, a Bury Free Press campaign to get readers beyond their usual places and make the most of one of the best town centres in the East.
On what can be done to protect town centres in a time when many shops are being forced to close, the pair do not have a silver bullet but feel little things can make a big difference.
“I think we need more signposting,” said Bev. “In other areas there are signs but there does not seem to be a lot down this way. There needs to be more signs saying there is a cinema down here and more retail.”
Of course, no conversation about shopping in Bury is complete without mentioning parking – and a pay on exit scheme has the Koti approval.
Over the course of their trading, though, the internet has played an increasing role. And Bev considers it to be part of the solution to the problem. The shop’s Scandi chic makes the interior perfect Instagram material. But they are now beginning to take opportunities to sell products as well on their own website.
Bev said: “It is the way it is going. We do hear that it is the internet that is killing shops, but people are coming in and wanting to see products for what they are. We won’t sell everything so people can keep coming back into the shop – and we are hoping to deliver.”
Would the challenges of rent, business rates, growing a brand and attracting footfall put them off advising others to follow their lead into retail? Not likely.
As Bev put it: “It’s just go with the dream. It is something I have always wanted to do. I wanted to go for it. You can’t sit around on your dreams.”
More by this authorWilliam Mata