Not just an academic exercise

09 March, 2007

Business studies students force the retailer's retailer to take a long hard look at his business

Leeds is an interesting city, both to live in and to do business in. It's been "in transition" for about 15 years now, and redevelopment has reached such a fevered pitch that they are now tearing down buildings built only five or six years ago to start new projects. There is a large population within the city centre, but there is next to no infrastructure to support them. Ironically, one of the two city centre supermarkets closed down a couple of years ago, presumably to be redeveloped into smart apartments. Of course, a transient population of around 50,000 students impacts massively on the city's demographic.

Our shop is in Headingley and we are on the edge of what might be termed "student land". All of our customers think that we make a killing servicing the student population, completely missing the fact that by and large, it's the young professionals, and new and established families that keep us going . For example, we wouldn't have an average price for a bottle of wine in excess of a fiver if we were just serving students. And although we set up a deal with the Real Ale Society at the university, we see their membership cards so infrequently that if the entire membership club drowned in a mash tun on a brewery visit, sorry to say, we might not notice.

But there are changes afoot in our area. There seems to be a concerted effort to move students out of shared houses, and into redeveloped accommodation on the edge of the city centre. This is expected to have the effect of repopulating the area near us with young professionals and families, which can only be good for business. Granted, it will take a house price crash of around 30 per cent to do this, as local prices have been artificially inflated by "landlordism", but it's going to happen eventually, isn't it?

But I digress. The huge student population occasionally turns up something interesting, and I'm not talking about the young man doing the local pub crawl dressed in nothing but a tiny pair of Speedos . We were approached by a group of students wanting to use us as a project for their business studies course. The deal was that they would come in and chat for an hour or so about the business, ask some penetrating questions, and then go away and write up a report on our performance.

I have to admit, I am a little sceptical about how much they will be able to tell me . My hunch is that they'll come back and say we need to spend more on advertising , and possibly try to up the average spend. However, the interesting thing was that while taking them through how the business has evolved, it was actually an eye-opener. I found myself saying things about how we had performed , and thinking: "Actually, I know we can do better in that area." Or about how we have the potential to offer a fine wine list, but haven't done so.

Like somebody on the waiting list to go and see a counsellor, the mere act of an introspect ion on the business's circumstances meant that I could see the problems and opportunities myself. I'd recommend it as an exercise in self-help if you're unsure how to take your business forward. Retailer, heal thyself!

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