When less can be more

31 October, 2008

Could downsizing be the cure for the credit crunch blues? Nigel Huddleston reports on a beer retailer that swapped a shop for market stall

A year ago Martin Bond moved his speciality beer shop from a conventional premises on the outskirts of Nantwich in Cheshire, to a permanent stall in a refurbished indoor market in the centre of town.

The move has saved on rent and put him in the heart of the town's shopping culture, though it means less space and limited opening hours, by order of the local council.

He still manages to cram a range of

100 bottled beers, cask beer, draught cider and home -brewing equipment into a space many stores would call the shop window. You can even buy a microbrewery in a box.

Why did you decide to move from a shop to the market?

It was expensive in terms of rent and not in a particularly good position. This is a lot cheaper, bu t I'm only able to open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays . I spend the rest of the week waiting for deliveries.

The rent's about 30% of what it was. There are no rates and water is included in the rent, so the only thing I pay extra for is electricity. Every trader pays the same rate, so the difference is based on area and frontage.

Why a specialist beer shop?

I used to work on the railways in computer training and I was always a Camra member who was interested in beer. When I left there I took a course in brewing with Brewlab at the University of Sunderland and became a brewer at the Paradise Brewery on the edge of town, and then a brewpub in Crewe. I'm getting a bit long in the tooth for all that now though. Cleaning out the mash tuns is quite strenuous work.

Markets can have a reputation for being overly bureaucratic. Has that been an issue for you?

There are things that we can and can't do, such as altering the fixtures and fittings without permission, but I fixed all my shelves up last year and no one questioned it.

When I got my first licence for the previous place the police liaison officer didn't really know what I was about . She wanted all sorts of restrictions, particularly on draught beer. She also asked for a list of what I was going to sell and when she got to Rochefort 10 at 11.3% abv there was a sharp intake of breath. But these are products that are for a very specialised market.

Getting the new licence was much better, though they asked me if I'd do Challenge 21. I was happy to do so - and if I ever get anyone who looks under 21

I can assure you I will challenge them.

Who are your customers?

I get a lot of women - a fair number buying for themselves but a lot buying presents. It tends to be older men, but a fair range. The youngest are probably in their 20s. The best part of the job is being able to chat about what's happening with the beers and the pub scene around here. Not all customers have an inside working knowledge of the products but they all appreciate good quality beer.

What are your biggest sellers?

The biggest sellers are British bottles. I've been disappointed with sales of cask beer since I came here - I'm only doing one 9-gallon barrel a week - but I have started doing draught cider in 20-litre boxes recently and that's not going too badly. They are genuine farmhouse ciders from Devon, which I brought up when I was on holiday a couple of weeks ago.

Everything has to be unusual. Apart from my Czech beer I haven't got a pilsner. I've got Schlenkerla Ra uchbier - a smoked beer from Germany - and it's selling steadily.

Where do supplies come from?

I buy ciders and a lot of the British and Belgian beers from Beer Direct in Stoke. The German beers are from Sandbar in Stockport and a lot of the local ones come direct from the brewery. The only thing with local breweries is that they don't take bottling very seriously. You get the impression sometimes that they do some bottling when they go though a qui et period . Then they get busy again and stop doing bottles, so you can't get the consistency of supply.

How do you create your own

gift packs?

I get the packaging from the Leek Brewery, which is an incredible operation with a cheese company, pubs and it supplies bottling equipment to other microbreweries. He also buys in gift packs by the thousand and I get 100 when I need them. The label's just a big rubber stamp with our name on.

Would you advise other retailers to downsize?

It's been worthwhile for me but a lot would depend on the circumstances . It's easier to do this in the north of England because there's still more of a market culture, with people looking for bargains. People who have moved from the south of England have said that their local markets were not much more than a car boot sale, but markets here are a different kettle of fish .

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