The Design Trust loves small independent creative shops!

When I was growing up (Patricia) my mum had a gift shop/gallery in the Netherlands, so from a very young age, I was surrounded by beautiful products and learnt how to sell, how to create displays and how to turn products into much-loved gifts!

Despite the doom and gloom in recent years of the demise of the High Street, bricks-and-mortar retail is still very much alive and kicking. Although many craft galleries have closed their doors in the last decade many small niche shops are doing really well. Some towns have a vibrant thriving independent retail community, serving locals a rich and varied choice of products and services.

A good relationship between artists and makers and shops is vital, both serving each other to keep customers engaged, coming back and spending!

We interviewed three very different independent creative shops from across the UK to see how they operate, what they are looking for in new suppliers, how they source new creative products, their challenges, and their hopes for the future. Enjoy!

And let’s keep celebrating those small independent creative shops that make our High Street so special. And if you want more then check out here our 20 favourite independent craft and design shops. 

The Shop of Interest – Finnieston, Glasgow

The Shop of Interest Glasgow

The Shop of Interest is an art gallery and gift shop in Finnieston, Glasgow, selling original art, prints, jewellery, gifts, and interesting things. Set up by Martin Grubb in November 2010 as a space to bridge the gap between shop and art gallery.  Martin is an artist himself and wanted to find a space where he could work and sell both his own work and the work of artists he likes.

The Shop of Interest sells the work of creatives from all over Glasgow and Scotland but also occasionally brings artists from further afield. If it’s something beautiful or something unusual, chances are Martin will be interested!

How do you source products for your shop?

“We source our products from all over Scotland and further afield with artworks coming from as far away as Japan and New Zealand.

We are lucky to be quite close to the Glasgow School of Art so many of our artists attend or are graduates of the school. We attend the various degree shows every year to find the best new up and coming artists.”

How should creatives approach you if they want to sell with you?

“We welcome any artist, jeweller or designers to drop us an email with their work as there is nothing better than new things in the shop! The best way to do this is to email a few details about yourself and some good pictures of your work. A website link, if the artist has one, and also some rough guide prices can help too.”

Do you work on a sale-or-return or do you buy outright?

“We do sale or return with all our artists, whom we pay on a prompt monthly basis.”

What are your best sellers?

“Current best sellers are the Grey Earl’s ‘Stars are Braw’ range which are cute cartoons of Star Wars characters but with a Scottish Twist. Another range that sells well is a selection of botanic photographs mounted on gold leaf. These artworks are so beautiful that we get calls from people on the bus when it stops in the street opposite the shop to enquire about them!”

What marketing do you do?

“We use Instagram mainly for marketing. We feel Facebook has become a bit stale recently. We have set up our Instagram to automatically update our Facebook as we feel Instagram currently has a much wider reach and is more suited to our image-based content.”

What challenges do you face as a small indie shop?

“Demands in the future are possibly to do with Brexit. We had a range of prints last year which sold very well for us but after the Brexit vote and the crash of the pound we realised the profit on the prints along with shipping was no longer really profitable enough. We always look to support local artists first but having the occasional international designer come in adds a bit of variety. We’re not sure if that will be as easy in the future.”

Do you belong to any organisations that promote independent retail?

“We are lucky to be in Finnieston as the community in the area is very supportive of each other. Finnieston has become one of the trendiest places to be in the UK. Over the 7 years we have been here we have seen it change from an almost nothing into somewhere everybody wants to be and there is a real buzz about the place, especially at the weekend, which wasn’t the case a few years ago.

The Hidden Lane across from the shop is a collection of art and design studios who are always organising events to promote the area in the hope to drag people away from city centres and all the-out-of-town-shopping-complexes. We sell work from many of the Lane’s residents so there’s a real sense of being in it together and trying to help each other out.”

Our Handmade Collective – Leeds, North Yorkshire

Our Handmade Collective Shop in Leeds

Our Handmade Collective is an award-winning handmade, handpicked gift shopping experience showcasing the work of over 70 local makers. It is the partnership of Little Shop of Lathers and Handmade by Natalie, who have invited other crafters, makers, designers and artists to join them in this venture which has been open for business since June 2013.

Described as an ‘Aladdin’s Cave of handmade treasures’ it is based in the Grand Arcade, Leeds. Currently ranked number one for Shopping in Leeds on Tripadvisor and winners of Leeds Love Affair Best Place to Shop in Leeds and Best Place to Treat Yourself in Leeds.

How do you source products for your shop?

“We are always looking for local makers to work with – people who have a strong brand, high-quality handmade products and who provide something unique.  We often get recommendations from our existing makers, or we browse social media or Etsy if we are looking for something specific.  Sometimes we will see a maker exhibiting at a local event and feel their work will complement our Collective perfectly.”

How should a maker interested in stocking their work with you approach you?

“We prefer for makers to contact us through email or social media initially as we prefer to focus solely on our customers when we are in the shop. Often we don’t have the time to speak to creatives who call in unannounced. Customers are always our first priority.”

Do you work on a sale or return basis, do you buy outright or a combination?

“We work on a sale or return basis with our makers – paying a monthly rental and commission to stock with us.”

What items are your best sellers?

“That’s actually very hard to answer as it changes a lot! But puns are always popular (thankfully as we have a lot!), anything related to cats, and any cute and quirky items. Currently, enamel pins are very on trend and we have a great range of them.  We’re very lucky that we have a lot of very unique products in store!”

What marketing tools work best for you?

“We use social media a lot to advertise ourselves and our makers, mainly Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Facebook and Instagram are great for engagement and showing our wares to our audience, and Twitter is excellent for networking with other businesses and organisations.”

What challenges have you faced in the past and what challenges do you foresee in the future?

“One of the main challenges as a small independent business is not having a huge (in fact, any) budget for marketing which makes it harder to make ourselves known to the general public. The Grand Arcade was very run down for several years and although it was renovated in 2013, a lot of local folk still don’t realise the changes which have taken place. Footfall is an ongoing concern and any retailer worth their salt will always say they would like more footfall (and customers!).

Luckily, we have a loyal following of customers, family, friends, and makers who recommend us to everyone they can – and word of mouth recommendations are invaluable. 

The past couple of years since the beginning of 2016 have been particularly challenging in terms of the political situation in the country following the UK election, the US election, and the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Added to that is the growing trend for online retail (24/7 shopping), and more and more companies offering huge discounts on sales such as Black Friday events.  Imported bulk buys, mass-produced goods and large retailers offering very low, loss-leading prices that small, independent retailers who make products by hand have no way of competing with are huge challenges to face. 

And then there is the demise of some large well known High Street retailers.  All of these factors have meant that consumers are understandably being very careful how and where they spend their money; times are uncertain and it is worrying.  We don’t see these challenges improving much in the immediate future, to be honest, but all we can do is continue what we are doing and be sound in the knowledge that we are doing that to the best of our ability. 

More and more people are becoming aware of the value of shopping small, shopping local and supporting small businesses, which in turn supports the local economy.  That’s music to our ears!”

Do you belong to any organisations that promote and support independent retail?

“A lot of our makers are part of local teams for Etsy sellers in Leeds, Sheffield, and York, with regular meetings, online support via Facebook groups, and the organisation and curation of the annual Etsy Made Local Christmas Markets, which are held on the first weekend in December across the UK.  Etsy as an online marketplace is a huge platform advocating small, independent businesses with high-quality goods.  We have been described as Etsy on the High Street, which is lovely to hear!

Leeds itself has an extensive independent business community which is very supportive of each other and there are some businesses we work more closely with than others. One of those is Independent Life, which among other things produces the ‘Little Black Book’, a directory of independent businesses across Leeds. We are proud to be a part of the directory and the community and have worked with them for a few years now.

We are also big supporters of the Just A Card campaign, which is all about supporting independent, local businesses and the local economy by making a small purchase of just a card (or a cup of coffee, a book, a pin, a piece of cake).  These small purchases help so much to support small retailers and keep them in business – and it is a philosophy we firmly believe in! It felt to us like there was a turning point recently where small businesses became more vocal about the struggles being faced, and it really hit home with us that it is okay to admit that times are hard, and the struggle is real.

It’s not a sign of weakness to admit that more sales and more customers are needed and indeed, are vital to keep small businesses alive. 

It proves that small businesses are real people, (often just one person), not big corporations with a large workforce and seemingly endless pockets.

The Just A Card campaign has helped to highlight the concerns of many small businesses, it has given them a platform to share their stories. And by doing so it is helping to build a strong community of like-minded individuals who are there to support each other and let people know they are not alone. If you haven’t heard of the campaign, do visit their website/social media and get involved using the hashtag #justacard.”

Any future plans?

“Not as such, although we would always like to have more retail space to be able to bring on board more local makers as we’re always full to bursting! There is such a lot of talent out there and it would be great to be able to offer even more people a platform to showcase their work. 

We love where we are situated in the Grand Arcade, Leeds and we are part of a fabulously supportive creative community that we cannot imagine moving away from.

And we are makers as well, with our own businesses, so we do need some time to make our own products – something we wouldn’t be able to do if we had further premises! Although a pipe dream of a collection of Our Handmade Collective stores across the country is a beautiful thought….”

Brass Monkeys – Hove, East Sussex

Brass Monkeys Jewellery Shop Hove East Sussex

The original Brass Monkeys was set up by jewellers and silversmiths Jenifer Wall and Samantha Maund in 2002 in an old mechanics garage. In 2007 they renovated an old second-hand furniture shop on the Portland Road in West Hove and transformed it into a gallery with workspaces for seven jewellers. Sam left the business in 2013 to concentrate on her other career as a physiotherapist.

Brass Monkeys has established a reputation for selling beautiful, unusual and affordable handmade jewellery by established and emerging British designer-makers. The shop has a broad customer base, from local loyal customers to customers who travel from further afield as well as online customers. The client demographic is very broad and from early 20’s upwards.

How do you source jewellery for your shop?

“We have makers that approach us and send us their details by email, or we may seen a maker’s work at an exhibition or trade fair or another gallery, and then we might approach them directly.”

How should a maker approach you if they want to sell with you?

“We welcome makers contacting us, and they can drop us an email at [email protected] with a short bio about themselves and either images attached or a link to their website. We never mind receiving an invitation to an event either!

Selection is based on the quality of work, both in the design and making and also if we feel it will appeal to our customers. We will also take into consideration any overlap with the work that we already have.”

Do you work on a sale-or-return basis, do you buy outright or a combination?

“We mainly work on a sale-or-return basis but we do buy some work outright if we really like a maker’s work and that’s the only way they are able to stock us. We prefer to work on a sale-or-return basis as we can then be a bit more adventurous with what we stock.

We do make a point of paying our makers every month and we do keep good records!”

What items are your best sellers?

“We don’t really have best sellers as we have such a range and each month is different, but we do sell lots of alternative wedding rings.”

What marketing tools work best for you?

“We use all social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest and feel that this is the best way of spreading the word about new pieces and any offers. However word of mouth has built up a very good reputation for us with many loyal and regular customers. We have collected a good database of customers and we use MailChimp to keep in contact with them with any new work and offers.

We do occasionally run print ads but these would only be in a high-quality publication such as our locally based Viva magazine.”

Are you a member of any independent business support organisations?

“We are members of Hove Business Association. We also connect with local businesses on social media to promote each other and share information.

We try and follow as many online independent retail campaigners as possible eg the wonderful @justacard and share their posts to promote the message.”

What challenges have you faced in the past and what challenges do you foresee in the future? 

“There are always lots of challenges and hurdles: we opened in 2007 at the start of the recession and so we have always had financial challenges due to the economy. Luckily Brighton and Hove have not been too badly affected but it can be difficult to plan around situations that we have no control over.

There are always a lot of things to juggle with owning your own business and multi-tasking can be a real challenge. Being a maker as well and wanting to spend most of my time at my bench means that I have to have a good team to help me – luckily I have!”

Any plans for the future?

“There are always improvements that I want to make to the shop and it would be lovely to have a bit more space but at present, there are no real plans to expand. I sometimes dream about a second Brass Monkeys but that would be way off in the future, if ever!”


Do you love independent craft and design shops? Share with us below in the comments where you love to shop and why. Or where you stock your own lovely products!

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