Woolaballoo.com and Deli at Number 4: Hexham’s new breed of web-savvy independents
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I’ve often commented on Hexham’s very low retail vacancy rate, and the fact that the town’s empty units rarely stay empty for long. Arrivals in the last eighteen months have included Poundland taking over the ex-Heron Foods site and Mountain Warehouse occupying the former Stead & Simpson. Meanwhile, Hexham’s ex-Woolworths in Fore Street was one of the first to be snapped up by Iceland in January 2009, just days after Woolies’ closure.
With consistently buoyant demand for space from big-name retailers, an excellent indie stretch between St Mary’s Chare and Market Street, and a strong anchor in the much-improved Beales, Hexham certainly seems to be holding up pretty well, despite the economic downturn.
Indeed, paying my first visit for a few months to Hexham yesterday, I was pleased to see that two units vacated more recently have both gained new independent occupants.
Until recently, 25-26 Market Place housed one of The National Trust’s relatively small number of standalone high-street shops; as you would expect, most NT shops are connected to the Trust’s own properties, but it has historically operated a network of 20 or so additional shops in historic towns and cities such as Cambridge, Canterbury and York. However, the double-fronted Hexham shop closed last month, reportedly due to being “no longer viable”.
After being empty for just a matter of weeks, the premises reopened yesterday (30 June) as Woolaballoo.com, “an exciting new knitting destination” – seemingly tapping into the same growth market as Newcastle’s The Knit Studio (housed in a stunning space at the city’s Blackfriars) or Wooly Minded, both of which opened in 2010.
From what I understand, Woolaballoo.com began as a physical store in Crawcrook in 2007, before relocating to larger premises in Blackhall Mill nearly a year ago and now, again, to the even more prominent site in Hexham. All this time, it has also been growing its online business alongside.
This simultaneous expansion of offline and online runs counter to the media’s perception of online retail killing the high street, but there does seems to be a growing trend of enterprising independents taking this approach, or even developing a physical presence once they have successfully established a brand and customer base on the Internet.
The fascia of Woolaballoo.com’s new Hexham store does a great job of flagging up the business’s multichannel presence, not just through the telltale ‘.com’ in the name but also by featuring its Twitter address (@woolaballoo). Once there, it’s great to see that the Twitter account is really active and engaging, with a chatty tone from owner Lucy Bush that celebrates the store’s independence and quirkiness and is likely to strike a chord with its target audience; on Facebook, the store’s Page is similarly well done, and has built a large and enthusiastic following. Where Wooly Minded has a rich and colourful instore experience let down by inconsistent and rather dated branding across its store estate, it’s also good to see Woolaballoo.com adopting a coherent and visually pleasing look and feel across all its channels.
There’s always room to do some things even better, of course; on the website, I’d have liked to see the Hexham store opening flagged up on the homepage rather than slightly buried away in the blog, and it would be useful to make the social media icons on the homepage and blog header clickable links through to Woolaballoo.com’s presence on those networks. Overall, however, this seems like a great little business that’s really embracing and developing the potential for synergies between a web store, a physical shop, and social media as a marketing tool.
Just across Hexham’s Market Place at 4 Beaumont Street, I was also delighted to see the arrival of Deli at Number 4, which opened in March in the premises formerly occupied by the fishmonger Taylor’s of Hexham. It’s always been a very compact unit, but the owners seem to be doing a great job of making the most of the shop’s assets.
Outside the store, smartly attired staff – dressed to match the shop’s pale and dark blue branding – were handing out tasters to passers by, while the white shopfront and awning convey a quality feel that’s entirely appropriate to both the shop’s products and its historic setting. The hand-chalked blackboards outside the shop, highlighting the latest news and promotions, add a friendly, personal touch that avoids the danger of too much white looking clinical rather than classy.
The store appeals close up, too. Walking past, my eye was drawn to the mouthwatering display of cheeses inside the shop, and Deli at Number 4 is definitely somewhere I’ll look to visit properly next time I’m back in Hexham.
Where shoppers in Hexham can hardly fail to be aware of Woolaballoo.com’s web presence, Deli at Number 24’s website address is more discreetly showcased on the side of the awning and the corner of the fascia. Again, however, it’s great to see a completely modern and consistent brand identity across both the physical shop and online, as well as plenty of good content on the website. It seems obvious, but it’s remarkable how often independent retailers’ websites forget to celebrate the very independence, personal touch and localness that makes them distinctive; Deli at Number 24 gets it right, however, drawing people in by telling the fascinating story of how business partners Jill and Jayne came to set up the deli, adopting a warm and chatty tone across all the content, and enlivening the experience with plenty of photographs.
Again, there are opportunities to develop things further – the blank ‘Gallery’ and ‘Suppliers’ pages need populating, and the Facebook page still needs to build a bigger following in order to be more than just a one-way conversation. With lots of independent foodie shops, such as Newcastle’s Mmm… and Hexham’s own Dillies, also making a great go of promoting themselves via Twitter, this is another way in which Deli at Number 4 could potentially tap into a wider North-East customer base, and cement its connections with Hexham’s thriving community of Twitter-savvy indie retailers.
From a personal point of view, it’s great to be able to highlight some more local examples of good practice when I’m helping other independent businesses to improve their website content or develop an effective social media presence. More generally, however, it’s fantastic to not only see two new independent shops enriching Hexham town centre’s retail offer, but to also observe how those retailers are using the web and social media really effectively: seeing the Internet not as a threat, but as something that is integral to, and can help to grow, their businesses.
Armed with those resources, here’s hoping that Woolaballoo.com and Deli at Number 4 both go from strength to strength in their new homes.