Independent Cambridge

Independent Cambridge scuseme interview

The Indie has come a long way

Times are hard for retailers everywhere, even in relatively affluent Cambridge. In the past the independent sector has felt the pinch more than most, but things are beginning to change.  A resurgence of independent shops, traders and services is slowly taking hold. Independent Cambridge, created and helmed by Anne Beamish and Steve Linford, is working hard to propel this movement in our city.  Starting as a published book, their website is now the main window to (nearly) all independent purveyors of goods and services in the city.  I spoke with Steve and Anne to find out about the origins, ethos and ambitions of this venture.

Breaking the chain

In 2010, Cambridge was named by the New Economics Foundation amongst 117 other towns in the UK as having the least diverse high street. Then, all but one of the 57 stores on Petty Cury was a chain shop. Cambridge character was undeniable, but this drew solely on the city’s history and architecture; its Anytown high street made little contribution. Back then, Cambridge resident Anne Beamish was unhappy working for a London based publishing company.  Her experience on the committee for the Mill Road Winter Fair raised her awareness of an independent sector in Cambridge. But in contrast to the more edgy and vibrant scene in places like Bristol, it was clear that Cambridge was lacking something.

Anne had worked with graphic designer Steve Linford on a number of projects.  They came up with the idea of a commercial organization that would promote the local independent scene. Steve had long recognized the complacency in the city. “Cambridge is small, if you remove the University you’re left with a market town.  Sadly a lot of the commerce is based on University spin-outs that have little interest in promoting independents” says Steve. “It just didn’t seem like the growth in innovation in Cambridge was reflected in the shops, restaurants and cafes at its heart”.

“I wanted to see places develop that had more ‘Mill Road’ to them” says Anne. “So, I decided to develop something visual to get this message across. I spoke to Steve. He liked the idea”.  Steve chips in, “We put together a dummy booklet to show to people, and Anne got on her bike”.

Anne continues: “I would cycle the streets of Cambridge to identify the independent shops and businesses. As a result word about what we were doing spread like a forest fire. Some people who really took to the idea would drag me along to meet others. Considering I had no sales experience, it picked up really quickly.”

“We now have all sizes of business” says Steve, “from the larger ones like Cambridge Wine Merchants and CambsCuisine to the one-man bands. It’s great to see the smaller businesses grow and flourish”.

Outspoken for Independent Cambridge scuseme interview

The business concept

The Independent Cambridge book (not to be confused with Cambridge Independent newspaper) was their first product in 2013.  Online, the company offers free registration for independently owned companies within the county of Cambridgeshire. “We must keep the authenticity of our brand intact” says Steve. “Some businesses can be tricky to identify as independent because of blurred ownership.  So, the Calvery Brewery is a great example of an independent pub and brewer.  While others, such as The Old Bicycle and The Petersfield brand themselves as independent but are owned by London based venture capitalists”.

Indie benefits

Cambridge Independent offers IndiePro, an enhanced paid membership where members enjoy coverage in the indie, its quarterly free magazine.  The first edition published in February 2018 is available in member outlets across the city.  “The indie is working out well as a showcase for us and them,” enthuses Anne.

So is it just about advertising I ask.  “Not at all.  We help businesses collaborate” says Anne.  “Because there are many benefits from working together, we help them to do this as a network.  For example, we pool deliveries around town”.  Importantly Independent Cambridge provides a dedicated voice in the city to help increase the critical mass and consolidate the common goals of independents and the Independent Cambridge philosophy is egalitarian.

Running an independent business themselves, Anne and Steve regularly speak at events and on social media on matters that affect the indie scene, where other independents might feel compromised. “Our IndiePro members really get it” says Anne “so Sarah at Modish Shoes is a fantastic supporter and speaks out about the indie movement in Cambridge.  While the Varsity Hotel supports the sale of our books and others …. well they have just stuck with us all the way, like Ark, Petrus, Urban Larder and CUP.  We are quite an eclectic mix”.

Steve continues: “Yes we really wanted that. It just seemed to happen naturally.  We realise that the more people we involve the more we can do, since our goal is to sign up as many independent Cambridge businesses as we can and harness the power of the crowd”.

Changing markets

So how do things stand now?  Pressure is still great on UK independent retailers.  Online shopping (predicted to grow from 14% in 2016 to 34% in 2020), increasing business rates, congestion and parking costs make growing demands.  And customers, who generally have less money to spend, demand more from their shopping experience.  Cambridge has its own challenges on top of these.  “Research tells us that locals don’t want to go into the city because visitors make it so crowded” says Steve.  “We expected parking to be the biggest deterrent but it’s tourism.”

These challenges make it necessary for independents to continually innovate and strengthen.  Research by the British Independent Retailers Association shows that independents remain crucial to the vitality of our high streets. Significantly they account for 65% of all retail and leisure units in Great Britain. But there are signs of a considerable shift in the focus and location of independent occupiers.  Many can no longer afford the high street rents and the service economy is overtaking goods.

In Cambridge store closure affects chains as much as independents.  However, happily indies tend to be replaced by other indies.  A recent example being the Afternoon Tease premises on King Street which was taken over by the newly crowned Best Restaurant in Cambridge, Stem + Glory. Others are adapting fast: Catesbys interiors has now gone substantially online reflecting a multi-channel (“bricks and clicks”) business model. In contrast, Fantasia on Mill Road has combined forces with other local indies to offer them the opportunity to trade on the high street at the same time offering customers a much greater range of items.

“We know we’re onto a good thing because we are seeing more corporates trying to pass themselves off as independents.  This interesting trend speaks volumes in terms of the way corporates feel about themselves” says Steve.

The Indie Academy

The pair have loads of ideas. Ann concludes, “I see us putting in place training and mentoring programmes among members covering anything from window displays, accountancy, adapting and changing to market trends etc.  For example Kobir who owns Prana Indian Restaurant has a wealth of experience to offer other independent restaurant business owners and will share his learning with interested local businesses.”

Steve summaries, “Independent Cambridge is growing.  Our newsletters is popular and our reputation is strengthening.  Our next pressing goal is the relaunch of our website which we are very excited about.  We believe strongly in the future of the indie sector in Cambridge.”

For more information about Independent Cambridge please visit: www.indieCambs.co.uk

Dawn Giesler is the founder of scuseme, a recommendation service that provides an essential and honest resource to help your family run smoothly. Dawn has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. 
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