Tony Murray of Old Town General Store, Stockport, talks us through the ups and downs of business in the time of COVID
Interview by Robin Clementson
First off, tell us a little about Old Town General Store’s offering.
Old Town General Store is an 800 sq ft lifestyle store located in the heart of Stockport Old Town. The store only opened in October of last year. We sell a mix of menswear, ladieswear, beauty, and home gifting. Basically, there should be something for everybody - whether that be a bamboo toothbrush, a natural deodorant, a backpack, or a new jacket.
The name is great, like an old US western ‘go-to’, what’s in the name?
The store is located in Stockport Old Town, an area that is in the process of being regenerated. The ‘General Store’ bit is, well, I just liked the sound of it. It means I can sell anything and not be too tied into one type of product or department. It gives a customer a sense of intrigue, too, as the name doesn’t explain what we sell.
As a general store, If I see a product or brand I really like, it will drop into one of my departments. I overheard a customer on the phone saying they were in 'a really cool new shop’. I’ll take ‘cool’; I want customers to take their time in the store, browsing and discovering. The name fits with that philosophy.
2020 and beyond has been testing, no doubt. How have you adjusted to the landscape?
I was made redundant in July from my role as a retail director. This pushed me into following my dream of opening my own store. Within six days of opening, I was forced to close for Lockdown 2.0. This immediately meant I had to take my business online. I’ll certainly never have a more difficult start to opening a business again. People have said I’m brave to open at this time, but there’s never been as many empty shops, so there are opportunities with landlords. In the main, there is also a really healthy appetite for independent retailers here.
How has the business managed in terms of footfall as opposed to online sales?
I really believe in physical retail, and so far so do my customers. Sales in-store versus online are approx 60/40 in favour of in-store - and this has been exaggerated due to the lockdown. The reaction has been amazing by everyone that has visited and I see sales as high as 80% coming from the store in the future. This may change as I introduce more brands, but my focus will be on store customers, any online sales will be a bonus.
All my buying is being aimed at a physical store customer. I spent many hours looking at all the pros and cons of opening a physical store or just being online and the store won as I like people. I enjoy the interaction but it also gives me two chances of selling the same products. During lockdown, there was a much bigger emphasis on click-and-collect and home delivery. This worked well and I'll continue to do it. That’s the beauty of a small independent; generally, we can adapt much more quickly. All of my marketing for the store has been digital, with Instagram being the most successful in directing customers into the store.
As a new brand and business, do you feel better equipped to navigate the problems the pandemic has caused?
Retail is evolving, online is getting stronger and lockdown will have encouraged many bricks-and-mortar shoppers onto that channel, and until there is a new confidence in the high street, it’s going to be a struggle. Stores with a flexible approach will succeed.
Customers will want a bigger reason to visit stores. Experience in stores is more important now. Customers can demand more from an assistant, but just the basics of knowing a customer by name, buying products specifically for them, private appointments, home delivery are all ways in which the physical stores can win.
You cater for both men and women? Explain the brand mix and what you’re looking for?
The current brand mix was put together by working closely with brands that I had been working with in my last role. I needed to get brands on board quickly, and new suppliers often want to see a store trading before committing. It will take a couple of seasons to get my brand mix to where I want it to be, and I’m already excited about AW21 as brands have committed to Old Town General Store.
I want to sell brands with heritage, and if the brand is available to both men and women I will buy into both categories. So many times women can be overheard in menswear stores asking ‘why can’t we have products like this?’
I don’t just want to be a store full of brands, I want to sell the best socks I can find, the best outerwear, the best boots and bags. I’m not going to be brand-driven. I won't be concentrating on trends so much and I intend to work closely with brands to build lasting relationships.