Goodbye to Oil & Vinegar in Newcastle’s Eldon Square
After work, I trudged through the snow to the delightful Eldon Square Waitrose this evening, though not before giving the store a call to check that it was opening its normal hours. It was, though quite a few shops en route had signs in their windows announcing that they had shut up earlier than usual (a similar picture to elsewhere in the UK, according to Retail Week), including Waterstone’s at the Monument which was citing “staff shortages” due to the weather. The service in Waitrose was, as always, friendly and efficient, alleviating what might otherwise be the stress of negotiating a busy supermarket.
After my Waitrose food shop, I was sad – but not entirely surprised – to notice that the Oil & Vinegar store next door in St George’s Way appears to have closed down. The shutters were down, and the unit looks to have been stripped of both stock and fixtures. I’m not sure how long it’s been gone, but the store was certainly still open when I walked by before Christmas, and is still listed (for now, at least) on the Oil & Vinegar website (below). [Update, 8 Jan 2010: Not sure if it's my influence, but the Newcastle page has now been removed.]
It’s a disappointing end for a store that only opened at the end of 2008, and was featured, almost exactly a year ago, as Retail Week’s ‘Store of the Week’. It was, as John Ryan’s review suggests, a really appealing shop, with a rich and interesting instore environment.
However, the problem signs were probably there from the beginning. Regularly walking past on my way to the bus station, it’s fair to say that I’d never seen more a couple of customers in there at any one time – and often there looked to be no-one in the shop at all. Equally, the recent shrinking of the store – moving forward the back wall to reduce its size by about half – started to ring my alarm bells.
So what went wrong? To some extent, I’d suggest that Oil & Vinegar is the kind of shop where people go in, look at the lovely stuff on offer, and leave without buying anything. Certainly, it’s more of a giftware retailer than a place to buy things for yourself, reflected in the Netherlands-based company’s description of itself as a “culinary gift shop”.
On the other hand, Eldon Square’s previous Oil & Vinegar store – a franchise rather than a company-run shop – always seemed to do well. It lasted from 2003 to 2007, and reportedly closed due to supply chain issues, not because of any trading difficulties. (When it shut, I remember there being a notice in the window that suggested it was not the franchisees’ own decision to close down.)
The key difference between the two incarnations, I would argue, is location. The original Oil & Vinegar had a pretty good spot in Earls Way (where Geoff Steven & Son Opticians is now situated), close to the side entrances of both Marks & Spencer and John Lewis, and therefore with plenty of middle-class shoppers passing to and fro. The store, though small, benefited from being wide and shallow, therefore having a much more prominent frontage on the mall than might be expected, given its size.
In contrast, it’s fair to suggest that St George’s Way – the location of the current store - has struggled a little since it opened in February 2008. Two years on, four of the 16 units remain empty, with Argos and Waitrose (both often busy, though rarely thronged) the only major footfall drivers. (Though John Lewis and Boots both have entrances onto St George’s Way, they lead into the lower ground floor levels of those stores; instead, the entrances on the main shopping level above tend to be much more frequently used.)
Most importantly, I think Oil & Vinegar’s particular location within the mall has been problematic – next door to Waitrose but barely visible from its entrance; adjacent to two empty units; only passed by shoppers if they are going to and from the Eldon Square bus station; and deep and narrow in form (so with a limited frontage), rather than shallow and wide. Instead, the layout of St George’s Way and, particularly, the orientation of its escalators seems to makes the opposite stretch, from Waitrose to Old Eldon Square, flow as a busier and more obvious route.
Looking to the future, the Oil & Vinegar website indicates that there are still opportunities to open franchise stores in the UK, stating that “following a country re-structure and development strategy Oil & Vinegar UK are looking to grow the UK & Ireland with 8 [stores] in 2009 and 10 in 2010″. If this is so, perhaps we will yet see Newcastle welcome its third – and hopefully lucky – incarnation of an Oil & Vinegar shop.