As is the case with many urban areas in Britain, developers have invested in large, out of town retail areas, often with free parking or bus services, which can affect the traditional heart of the town.
This is true of Basingstoke, a large town situated in South East Hampshire. Having housed some of the London overspill from the Second World War, it continued to grow rapidly in the 50s and 60s. When a large, prestigious undercover shopping precinct was proposed, the town naturally seized the opportunity, leaving the town centre now on the fringes in terms of a retail centre.The Top of the Town area of Basingstoke is one such area. It has remained very well maintained and boasts a museum and theatre as well as a refurbished market square. Within the vicinity there are lots of office buildings including the Civic offices, plentiful car parks and is well served by public transport. This accumulation of assets should make for an ideal trading area, but many of the traders in the nearby shops are independent retailers and are struggling to compete with the chain stores in the new development.
Basingstoke market has been recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 and has held a regular Wednesday market since 1214, with the Royal Charter being established in 1622.
In April of this year, Hughmark Markets, under the leadership of Lew and Lee Hughes, were appointed by Basingstoke and Deane Council as Specialist Consultants to run both the Wednesday and Saturday Markets. I caught up with them during one of the Wednesday markets to find out about what changes they had made and what they had managed to achieve in six months.
Lew commented, “When we commenced our association with Basingstoke and Deane Council in April this year, our brief was to grow the Wednesday and Saturday market, introduce periodic specialist markets and create, as a team effort, a new interest in visiting the area known as the Top of the Town. None of us were under any illusions that this would be an overnight success story and in the initial period, lots of hard work and effort were required to make even small steps to the ultimate goal of increasing footfall and spend in this area of town, not just for the market but for all the retailers in the area.”
Their first task was to work with the market traders already trading there whilst introducing new retailers that sold lines that did not conflict with the established stall holders.
They also wanted to extend the trading area into Wote Street, which links the market square with the undercover shopping area at Festival Place. To introduce new stalls into Wote Street, they had to be very sensitive to the existing shops and businesses by not obscuring their frontages, displays and access. This of course meant that they could not introduce the usual, traditional market layout of a long bank of stalls, as this would effectively create a wall between the footfall and the very shops and businesses they were attempting to assist. They have managed to achieve this with sensitive planning and hence the layout is guided by the amount of blank wall space available.
Lew went on to say, “Since April we have introduced approximately 30 new traders and during the period many have not stayed the course which is regrettable, but anticipated, as we considered this to be a building phase. We did find that some were able to make it pay and have become regular traders with an established repeat business. Wote Street is now, to all intents and purposes, full. Our attention is focussed on trying to fill the adjoining streets at our disposal.”
On the recommendation of Hughmark, the council have introduced new signage near every pay and display payment point, to advertise the Wednesday and Saturday market.
Lew commented that “it is paying dividends because the attendance by the public is growing as the awareness also improves.”
As predicted by the company, the Wednesday market is improving faster than the Saturday but Lew expects in time it will even out but not necessarily with the same traders at both as some are already committed to other Saturday markets.
Since they took over, Lew and his son have introduced three specialist markets, something that they have an experience of hosting. The first was a large French market which filled up all of the allocated area and was held together with the existing market on a normal market day, to ensure that the regular traders benefitted from the extra footfall the French market attracted. This was followed by an Italian themed market and later an International market. There is no frequency to these events currently, but plans are in place to introduce one each month from next year.
I interviewed the traders, new and old, to find out what they thought of the improvements to their market. I was there for the midday rush and there was a positive vibe running throughout the market – stall holders shouting their wares and a street musician playing away. It also helped that it was a fine day, unlike the previous Wednesday’s trading and so footfall was good and shoppers took the time to browse and purchase.
I started at the top end of the market on Wote Street which leads down to the shopping precinct. The first stall I came across was the ‘E-liquidator’, specialising in e-cigarette products. From Selsey, some 40 miles away, the ‘E-liquidator’ has been trading on Basingstoke’s Wednesday market for 7 months. He has regular, repeat business, helped by a promotion that he has run.
He said “Everyone here is really friendly, there is more footfall now and the market has improved. The managers are nice people and very supportive.”
Next to him was David Bowyer whose large pitch displayed an array of soft furnishings, including bedding and towels. He’s only been trading there for just over a month, having previously sold at Bognor Regis and car boot sales. He has noticed trade is picking up and thinks the footfall is good. He was very positive about Hughmark saying that they had some encouraging start up rates and competitive rents to help new businesses.
An interesting addition to the market was Hisham Badir of K’nooz, selling Egyptian art, handmade jewellery, papyrus prints and hand stitched crafts. From Camberley in London, they were ‘trying the market out’ and this was their second week.
Hisham commented, “We have had some very positive responses to our products and there are some really nice people here.” In fact, whilst I was with him a lady was trying on some of his jewellery.
Lew introduced me to one of the shopkeepers on Wote Street to find out how the market team had worked together with the existing retailers. Alan Knight has been running Stones Fine Jewellery for five years and has fully embraced the concept of extending the market, to the point that they have even had a pop up stall outside of their shop.
He said, “Lew has been very careful not to block the shops and to integrate with us. The market creates a bit of theatre in an area that has bookmakers and charity shops in the street and has given it a much more industrious feel. It’s good for the town and has definitely made a difference to our business.”
One of the long standing faces of the market is Keith Eaton who has been selling his fresh produce on Wednesdays and Saturdays to the people of Basingstoke for 44 years. He used to also trade from Cirencester but has since given that up. The array of produce on his stall was impressive for a midweek market and he was continually replenishing stock; much of it comes from Millets, a local farm. Keith has many regulars and some are second generation customers which he has built a good relationship with and this was apparent in the banter that I witnessed between them.
Another chatty man was Nick Mitchell who has been looking after McCarthy’s Artisan bread stall for a couple of weeks. He may be new to the job but he certainly has the patter and was rarely without a customer. McCarthy’s are a well-established bakery, from Hutton, Nr Brentwood who specialise in retailing artisan breads, cakes and pastries across the South of England, covering as far north as Newark.
Undoubtedly the loudest and biggest character on the market is Mark, who has worked on various stalls, including Keith’s for over 35 years. He is a bit of a local celebrity and his call of ‘Hot dogs, burgers, bacon rolls a pound’ resonated throughout the square. He now works for Norman Prior, on the Bargain Burger stand. As I was there over the lunch period, there was a constant stream of customers from office workers to students and the large seating area they provided was full. Norman explained that although they have obvious breakfast and lunch trades, they have a steady stream throughout the day.
For those who like their food with a bit of zing, Thai Knight has a large selection of freshly cooked South East Asian wholesale meat retailer. He has been in the business five years having bought the business from a friend that he was working for. He trades in Basingstoke on both days and has a steady, regular customer base. He offers a selection of different, bulk buy, meat products, specialising more in joints of meat on Saturdays.
Another of Basingstoke Market’s success stories is Emily Broun from Manor Farm Eggs. She started her market retail business in 2009 at Basingstoke and now sells at four other markets. As well as eggs, Emily sells a range and at Basingstoke on Wednesdays.
Completing the Wednesday line-up and also a newbie is Dhillon who runs the ladies fashion stall. He started his business from Basingstoke three months ago and just trades on a Wednesday. For someone new to the trade, he has the right approach and engages well with customers. Although he has had some quiet periods, he commented that the people of Basingstoke were very friendly and were starting to know where he was.
There is a very positive relationship between all of the town retailers, the council, and everybody involved in the market, who are all working to the same entity.
Lew explained how he had achieved this and his plans going forward. “We identified from the outset that this could be a long haul over at least three years or phases and we are just over halfway through the first.”
“Phase one was to introduce the new trading area without disrupting or affecting existing businesses in an adverse way, taking in to consideration both shops and existing market traders of long standing. This has been achieved, but to finalise the first phase we need to expand the areas, which we are working on at the moment.”
“During the second phase we will need to establish a regular specialist market on a monthly basis or alternatively, create specialist sections of the existing Wednesday and Saturday markets. The third is an optional phase which would all be about aesthetics but first you have to create the demand and make Basingstoke a sought after destination for market traders. To do this, the profile needs to be lifted, which our regular trade advertising, the excellent Council back up and hopefully this feature, might help to alert traders that Basingstoke Top of the Town market has potential for them too. Prospective new traders are welcome.”
“We are seeking to expand our consultancy work in the future and have been operating markets since 1972 in Ireland, Wales and all over England. We have a wealth of knowledge and expertise which we can put to good use for both local Councils and private site owners.”
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