Category: Shopping

Cable Café: Must try harder

Cable Café: Must try harder

I love to support local businesses; goodness knows I blog about them enough. Like many people I’m worried about the future of the high street and want to do my bit to keep our local stores alive and thriving. Figures just released show the number of shops lying empty soared by more than 7,500 last year, with one in ten shops in UK town centres now unoccupied.

Retailers, especially small retailers, have to be at their best to attract and retain customers; service has to be tip-top. So, for all kinds of reasons, it really grates when it isn’t.

We usually buy our coffee from a small coffee roaster in York. The quality is excellent but in our continued efforts to buy local Mrs Preen suggested I pop into the Cable Café on Brixton Road and buy some of their coffee. They roast their own and we’d heard good things about it.

I went in at around 2pm when the place was just opening up. There were three staff putting out tables, sweeping the floor and generally getting the place in order. I called out and asked if I could buy some coffee.

A man at the sink said: “Sorry we’re closed, but you can buy it from our other café down Camberwell Road.”

Now here’s the thing, I was looking at the bag of coffee I wanted to buy which was sat just the other side of the bar. So, I persisted and said look it’s right there, it’ll take a second for me to pay and go.

One massive sigh and eyeroll later the bag of coffee and cash machine are banged down in front of me. I tap the card on the reader and receive not a word of thanks.

I was so surprised and irritated by their behaviour that I actually said: “What’s going on here?” But answer came there none, just glum silence.

Perhaps they hate their jobs, perhaps they just hated me, but where is the incentive for me to return? I paid £12 for a bag of coffee and the transaction took perhaps thirty seconds. What was so hard about that?

Anyway, I went home fuming and made myself a cup of their coffee. It was delicious. But do I love it enough to overlook the utter contempt with which I was treated?


 

Growth on the high street

Growth on the high street

Debenhams just announced they’ll be closing 22 stores next year putting more than a thousand jobs at risk. House of Fraser survives on a wing and a prayer and HMV has already closed a plethora of their shops. The cold hand of digital retail is slowly strangling the high street.

M&S, long the bell-weather of UK retail, are not having an easy time, though buying Ocado and partnering with British Airways to supply food on their flights looks to be a canny move.

I went to Moscow in 1991 just before the big switch from communism to capitalism got underway and I remember what struck me most was the complete absence of shops. Their showpiece was the dreary GUM department store on Red Square where if you queued long enough you might get a loaf of bread. Russia has long since changed from communism to turbo-capitalism, but I’ve always had a soft spot for shops and think of them as the most benign form of capitalism.

Yards of newspaper space is now taken up with hand-wringing articles on the future of the high street. Should Amazon be taxed more aggressively? Should bricks and mortar stores stay open at more convenient times? Should business rates be cut? These pieces usually feature a comment from the retail guru Mary Portas, but however well-meaning these efforts, the high street seems to be dying on its feet with little sign of a vision that could turn it around.

Whatever the answer is I don’t have it, but there is an interesting experiment going on in our neighbourhood. I’d hardly call our little row of shops a high street as there are in total just eleven stores. We have the usual betting shop, taxi service, optician and estate agent, but there are three shops together that might just point to a direction of travel.

Around a year ago a new restaurant opened up called Oval 24, you can see this blog’s review here, it’s a fine eating establishment which has garnered excellent reviews. To the right of the restaurant the shop has been turned into a flat and is now no longer retail space, but living accommodation.

But it’s the shop next door where things get interesting. Oval 24 has taken the space and uses it to grow vegetables for their kitchen. Just recently they erected huge tubs filled with lettuces and carrots out front of the shop. I saw these going up and was worried they’d be vandalised; this hasn’t happened. Inside the shop other vegetables are being grown using horticultural full-spectrum LED lights.

There’s long been talk of the high street offering experiences rather than retail opportunities, but I never thought shops could become urban kitchen gardens. Perhaps it’s this kind of innovation we need to counter the dreaded empty spaces, the blackened teeth of the high street, and turn it back into in a vibrant living environment.

Update: Just took the dog out and went past the street I’ve been talking about only to discover that what was once a laundrette will soon be a gym offering personal training, which kind of reinforces the point I’ve been trying to make. Good luck Damo.


 

Phoney viagra seized at Nine Elms Market, Daily Mail gets hard-on

Phoney viagra seized at Nine Elms Market, Daily Mail gets hard-on

Last week I blogged about a visit I made to Nine Elms Sunday Market. The large police presence and the seizure of counterfeit goods caught my eye. Tipped off by plod, the Mail ran with the story later in the week.

Viagra always makes a great subject as it allows papers like the Mail to be slightly prurient and indulge in a spot of innuendo. Viagra: Raising more than suspicion!

But even the mighty Daily Mail no longer employs the number of journalists it did, so no reporter will have been sent to cover the story. The facts came from Queenstown Police and the story will have been written by a hack back at their HQ in Kensington.

But, here’s the problem, with a story like this you need quotes from punters.

So, a witness at the scene apparently told the Mail: ‘Someone could have bought that perfume and it could (have) caused harm to someone’s skin, but if it was something taken orally like medication it could have had catastrophic events’. Trust me no one, and I mean no one, talks like that down Nine Elms. Taken orally? Give over.

And this: But one shopper said counterfeit goods were ‘rife at stall after stall’. No one in the history of the world has used the word ‘rife’ at New Covent Garden.

You don’t think the Mail made up these quotes, do you? Perish the thought.

Nine Elms Sunday Market

Nine Elms Sunday Market

Nine Elms Lane SW8 5AL: 9am-2pm

New Covent Garden Market is just over the road from the Battersea Power Station development. It’s the fruit and veg capital of the UK with produce coming in from all parts of the globe and then being shipped out to all parts of the UK. During the week, from the very early hours, it reverberates to the shouts of barrow boys, the squeal of fork lift trucks and the thunder of departing trucks. On a Sunday, the nation’s greengrocers get a day off and it becomes one of the biggest markets in London.

The day I went, the sun was beating down, prices were being beaten down, police were clamping down and the new US Embassy was gazing down on Nine Elms Sunday Market. It was my first visit in years.

Superficially, not much seems to have changed. If anything, it’s even busier, perhaps there are more Slavic and Russian accents and a few more Polish stalls than before. It’s still very much a working-class event, with a high proportion of immigrants both buying and selling. New Covent Garden on a Sunday is a world away from the old Covent Garden in the West End. There’s no artisan cheese, craft gin or organic chocolate on sale here.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the sizeable police presence. I chatted to a few of them but in true plod tradition they were keeping it pretty tight lipped. In total I guess there were about twenty police officers present made up of two groups. One were officers impounding counterfeit goods – I saw at least two clothing and handbag stalls being closed down – the other group were police supporting Immigration Enforcement officers from the Home Office who were clearly tracking immigration offenders. They were in urgent conversation with various individuals, but I didn’t witness any arrests. Talking with stallholders and punters, it seems that in the last two weeks the police presence has risen sharply. Checking for fake goods and fake IDs looks like hot work for those who go to work in a stab proof vest.

So, what’s the shopping like? Arming myself with an excellent flat white from ‘Full of Beans’ (which came with a complementary choc chip cookie) I went in search of bargains. Trainers are a big sell with brand names such as Vans going for £20. Whether these are real or of real interest to the police I couldn’t say. Builders’ kit is clearly a big draw with men coming from all over to get tooled up with electric saws, drills, spirit levels and the rest.

If you want to take a break from shopping, check out the many global food outlets. Curry and Chips (see above), that’s fusion cooking Nine Elms style. Then there are several ‘Head Shops’ where those with an interest in illegal weed can score their rizlas and other cannabis related paraphernalia.

Inevitably, stalls sell electrical items such as mobile phones, second hand laptops, satellite dishes and there’s no end of clothing, mostly T shirts, jeans and sports shirts and it has to be said a fair amount of plastic junk. Get your dodgy cigarettes and tobacco on the way in.

Many people clearly love the place and use it as a popular day out to meet friends, have a bite to eat and pick up some bargains. It’s not posh, plush or pretty but it is cheap, and the place has a real energy about it. I accept some won’t like it, but it’s here, it’s on our patch, and you should take a look.

Fancy running a stall yourself? Here the low-down: A 3×3 metre pitch costs from £55 a day and you can hire tables and other market gear to display your goods. All new traders have to register and provide some form of photographic identification such as driving license or passport. Casual traders must go to the market office at 6.30am. Once you’ve registered and paid, you will be given a pitch for the day. If you want a permanent pitch, then that’s the time to ask. A regular pitch is cheaper and means you are in the same place every week, so your customers know where to find you. Contact: info@saundersmarkets.co.uk. Tel: 01483 277640

Shop Local

Shop Local

Our neighbourhood is fenced in by Brixton Road, Clapham Road, South Lambeth Road and Wandsworth Road all of which fetch up either at Oval or Vauxhall. Lots of roads, but no Hight Street; no banks and no big destination stores, but what we do have are great independent shops.

Use ‘em or lose ‘em may be a cliché, but when it comes to retail it’s quite literally true. Shop local because if you don’t, what do you get? More boarded up buildings, more chicken nugget boutiques and yet more bookies. That’s a future we can do without.

So here are three local shops for your consideration: Max & Melia, Blissett’s and Mimi’s Deli. I took a stroll round to all three and asked the owners why people should pay them a visit.

Max & Melia

  • 16 Clapham Rd SW9 0JG
  • Opening Hours
  • Tuesday to Thursday: 1030am-7pm
  • Friday and Saturday: 1030am-6pm
  • Monday and Sunday: Closed

Max & Melia is a gift shop; go in for a card and pick up a present. The owners have a terrific eye for quirky gifts, so while there are plenty of scented candles, greetings cards, and a rather fine Queen & Corgi salt and pepper set, you will also discover ‘shabby chic’ antiques. The owners scour auctions and markets for the unusual and idiosyncratic. They don’t claim to be antique experts, but they buy what they love, and they know what their customers want.

M&M opened its doors in November 2012 and originally intended selling furniture and other bigger homeware items, but customers started calling it the Little Oval Gift Shop, so that’s what it became.

Maxine, one of the owners, makes the point that what they offer is personal service. Come in a few times and you’ll be greeted by name, made to feel welcome and offered informed suggestions as to what you might want to buy.

The shop has just won a prestigious award. Battling against other top independent outlets from across London they received a Greats Award and were named ‘Independent Gift Retailer of the Year’.

They are dog-friendly (they own two), they have goods from all over the world, but they are on our doorstep so: think global and shop local.

Blissett’s

  • 32 Brixton Road SW9 6BU
  • Opening Hours
  • Monday to Friday: 8.30am-5.30pm
  • Saturday: 8.30am-4pm
  • Sunday: Closed

Google Blissett’s hardware store and the reviews are spot on:

  • Super helpful staff, good range of stock and fair prices.
  • Friendly, knowledgeable staff and an Aladdin’s cave of fantastic products.
  • Excellent DIY shop with very helpful staff.

Blissett’s is no new kid on the block. It was a building firm after the war employing some 27 men and was bought by the current owners’ Dad in 1981, who decided to retain the name but turn it into a builder’s merchant.

When asked why people should visit their shop, personal service and advice was again high on the agenda. While they still supply builders, many of their customers are now householders doing DIY. I can vouch for this as over the years I’ve sought their advice and products. My wife thinks I’m best at DNY (Do Nothing Yourself) but with their help, I struggle on.

Interestingly, they mentioned that many of their customers don’t have cars and so won’t venture farther afield to say B&Q but would rather use Blissett’s because it’s convenient and just a walk away.

They have a wide range of products which they claim are often cheaper than when sold over the internet and if a customer wants something they don’t have in stock they do their best to have it for them the next day.

Mimi’s Deli

  • 2 Brixton Rd SW9 6BU 
  • Opening Hours
  • Monday to Saturday 8am-5.30pm
  • Sunday 9am-3pm

Mimi’s has just been spruced up with some rather slinky designs of an elegant woman (is it Mimi?) drinking coffee. Any why wouldn’t she, the coffee is great in this extremely popular family run shop that is both deli and café.

Pop in for lunch or pick up something to take home. In our house their home-made pesto Genovese combined with their fiery chili pasta is always a winner. And my daughter wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t mention their legendary cannoli.

The café seats 20 people and is ideal for lunch with all the food being prepared in their downstairs kitchen. There’s a full menu every day which includes Italian classics such as pasta and pesto, lasagne and spaghetti Bolognese.

The shop has been a deli for more than thirty years with the present owners taking over in 2009. The financial crash saw off most of our specialist food stores so it’s a delight that Mimi’s has survived and thrived. As with the other shops I visited they pride themselves on giving their customers ‘that special, extra attention that you don’t get from chain stores’.

Mimi’s Deli: It’s our little bit of Italy on the Brixton Road.

You may already use these fine, welcoming establishments, but don’t leave it too long until your next visit.

Perfect London Sunday

Perfect London Sunday

Not sure what to do on a Sunday in London? Don’t want to splash the cash on a Sunday roast? Here’s what you do; you go to the Beigel Bake on Brick Lane and Columbia Road Flower Market. If you really want to keep it cheap you can get away with spending no more than a fiver, though that’s not including travel costs.

Get yourself to either Aldgate East or Old Street tube station and walk to Brick Lane.

There in all its glory, at the cross of Bethnal Green Road is the Beigel Bake. Not tried a beigel (pronounced bagel) before? They are a delicious Jewish delicacy that comes stuffed with either Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese or Salt Beef. The beigel itself has a wonderful chewy quality that is slightly sweet. It’s very important that you also buy a cup of tea that comes right out of the urn –  so thick you could trot a mouse on it. The combination of beigel and tea is sublime; the equivalent of mozzarella and basil or figs and Palma ham, though appreciably cheaper. The tea is 60 pence a plastic cup and a salmon and cheese bagel is £1.90. Don’t forget to order a dozen plain to take away, they freeze perfectly.

The Beigel Bake was established in 1974, runs a 24-hour operation (it’s very popular with clubbers in the early hours) and is said to produce 5,000 bagels a day.

While you’re on Brick Lane there’s lots to see and do from vintage clothes shops to art galleries or you could sit on a bench, eat your beigel and do some people watching.

Detour: At this point if you have a whole day you might want to go to Spitalfields Market which is close to hand, but I’ll leave that destination for another day.

Now full of beigel and tea, you need to take stroll to Columbia Road. If you want plants, flowers, shrubs and a fair bit of banter from the stall holders this is the place. The flower market is crammed into an impossibly narrow street and on a sunny day the crowds will be pressing but somehow it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. The market is open from 8am to 2pm and if you go late you might pick up some bargains as the traders try to get rid of unsold stock.

There’s also some great buskers and places in the central courtyard where you can grab a coffee; sometimes there’s an oyster stall. Plenty of tourists come, but so do Londoners in their droves. So, if you’re looking to plant petunias in your window box, buy some cut flowers or just want to be part of a London experience that dates back to the 19th Century then come to Columbia Road Flower Market.

Make the trip before winter has London in its icy grip or save the idea until the Spring. I know it’s a good day out, because I did it today.

Retail is hanging by a coattail

Retail is hanging by a coattail

But it’s not game over for the high street

Rows of boarded up shops make our high street look ugly; blackened teeth in what should be a shining retail opportunity. Many of the independent restaurants, delis and coffee shops have been trodden under foot by the merciless march of Pret A Manger, Caffè Nero and Starbucks. Shops have found competition with the cyber-retailers a fight they can’t win. Amazon brought a gun to a fist fight.

In the more run down areas it’s fried chicken, betting shops, mini cab offices, and not much else. Perhaps because it’s London – an estate agent.

Like, I suspect, many people, I feel deeply ambivalent about this as I use Amazon which typically provides a great service. I also use Pret A Manger and Caffè Nero both of which are pricey but offer excellent F&B. This of course has effects; we used to have an independent bookshop at the end of our street – gone. We just lost two much loved independent restaurants ‘Counter’ at Vauxhall Cross and ‘Oval Lounge’ on Clapham Road. Fortunately, we still have an independent coffee shop – The Sugar Pot.

The daughter and I were in New York a couple of weeks ago and it was interesting to note that many Mom and Pop delis and restaurants still survive there unlike in this town.

Interlude: I was in Croydon yesterday for work and was a little early for a meeting so stopped by the Smoothbean! café close to the station. Excellent friendly service and good coffee and croissants. Use it or lose it. 

Urban axe throwing

Retail is changing fast and it’s not all bad. We now seem to be in an interim period as shops swap from selling goods to providing experiences. My firm recently went on a works outing to an escape room experience. They provide themed games where you and your colleagues are locked in a room and must discover clues to affect your release. It’s all a bit Sherlockian and often combines a murder mystery. There are many all over London, mostly occupying what used to be retail spaces.

A five-minute stroll from Vauxhall Station takes you to the Vauxhall Climbing Centre. Here you can to prepare for popping up Mont Blanc or perhaps the Matterhorn. And a little further away you can join the Whistle Punks and engage in Urban Axe Throwing. Top outing for hens and stags but you’d be advised not to turn up drunk. It’s kind of like darts only with vicious light weight axes. You never knew you wanted to do this, did you?  No, I’m not making it up – take a look.

Andy the fishman

Andy the fishman is part of the new mobile high street. He doesn’t have a shop, he runs a van and he’s not from London. Every Tuesday he packs his waggon with fresh fish bought from the market in his native Grimsby, and hits the dark and dusty to bring salmon, tuna, fishcakes, seabass, swordfish and cod right to my door. He’ll be glad to come to your door too. He ranges over London on Wednesday and is in our neighbourhood on Thursday. Our cat Ziggy is particularly fond of his prawns. A charming self-effacing man who is always ready for a chat. He faces competition from other freewheeling fish vendors, many from slightly further up the East Coast, who sell boxes of frozen fish. Stick with Andy and get the fresh stuff.

Wholesale retail

Finally, I want to introduce you to Alf, not a retailer but a wholesaler who does a little retail on the side. You’ll be glad he does.

Alf and his brother own Lays of Chelsea, which operates out of New Covent Garden Market, right by the new American Embassy and the sprawling mass of development that stretches from Vauxhall to Battersea Power Station. Alf used to run a fruit and veg shop in Chelsea, hence the name, but upped sticks in the 80s, went wholesale and now supplies the posh restaurants of London.

If you get up early enough, not later than 7.30, you can swing by his premises on a Saturday morning and buy the freshest, sweetest tasting produce imaginable for an incredibly reasonable price. I recently bought some of the best asparagus I’ve ever eaten.

They are all incredibly helpful and will point you in the direction of the best produce available. Not too easy to get there by car so bikes and back-packs are recommended. I bought a small amount of fruit today which you can see here. It cost a fiver and I’m eating as I’m writing.

Fantastic quality, fantastic prices and a friendly service. It’s what retail is all about, but supplied by a wholesaler.

A quick word about Alf; his grandad was called Alf, his dad was called Alf, Alf is called Alf and his son is called Dave. Only kidding, of course he’s called Alf. Pay Alf a call, you won’t regret it.

High streets everywhere are undergoing massive change, retail shops may be dying but other businesses are taking their place. The future will be about experience at the expense of retail. You’ll go there to eat a meal, drink a coffee and perhaps throw an axe.