Following the news that a new owner has stepped in to save Bennetts of Irongate in Derby from permanent closure, Professor Marc Cowling, Head of Research and Innovation for the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences at the University of Derby, examines the stories behind the iconic store’s success, decline and potential revival.
The decline of the British High Street has been well documented for a generation. Familiar brands have disappeared and famous shops have closed. These events have been explained away by the usual catalogue of suspects including the rise of on-line shopping, anti-social behaviour in town centres, and the inadequacy of the physical infrastructure built in a world which was very different from the world we live in now.
Yet alongside this general malaise faced by citizens of towns and cities throughout Britain, there are also many examples of urban regeneration that has placed innovative use of physical assets and quality retailing at its heart. The Northern Quarter of Manchester is a fine example of this.
Evolving and extending
In my view, the tale of Bennetts of Derby, and indeed its predecessor Weatherhead Walters & Co, has two intertwined stories to it. The first story is about a dynamic entrepreneurial business which was continually evolving and extending its offer to the people of Derby from its origins as an ironmonger.
George Bennett acquired the business in 1864 and extended its product range initially into agricultural tools and feed, then sports equipment, before developing into a fully-fledged department store at a time when all of Britain’s major towns and cities had one.
This was very much an entrepreneurial business led by an owner with a clear vision. Indeed, the longevity of the business put it in the top 5% in Britain until its demise in 2016. But the demise appears to be bear the classic characteristics of a business that had lost its entrepreneurial dynamism and was following a path of down-sizing as a reaction to diminishing sales.
In fact the current shop frontage is around half of that in its heyday. And this reactive strategy, reducing costs and scale, is a sign that a business has run out of ideas in the face of a dynamic and continually changing retail environment. The owners have effectively become managers and lost their entrepreneurial drive and vision.
A new chapter
This is where the second tale begins. A new local entrepreneur, Paul Hurst, with what I believe is a clear vision has stepped into the breach. This is important for Bennetts and for the city of Derby itself.
Paul has the experience and capital to make his vision a reality. Whilst he is fully aware that he has purchased a strong brand, he is also aware that establishing a strong on-line presence is a way of reaching out to new customers and extending that brand presence into new markets and to new customer bases.
It is particularly interesting that he has clearly done his homework about the viability of rejuvenating the current store and rejected that on feasibility and cost grounds. Good homework is the key characteristic that defines a talented and successful entrepreneur. He has a long-term plan which involves some elements of evolution – strengthening the brand into on-line spaces, and some elements of revolution – complementing strong retail brands with exciting product offers from new designers. The latter will help to attract new, younger customers whilst the former will help retain established customers. This is stage 1 of the entrepreneurial process.
The second stage, Paul has indicated, is to locate and develop a high street presence in a new building which is fit and appropriate for the development of a modern consumer retail experience. Again, a clear and visionary strategy backed up by a solid business model and case.
So in a sense we have, within the context of a single long-lived business, a tale of two (or possibly three) entrepreneurs separated by 155 years (or even 285 years) of history. The characteristic of all three was a sense of place, a commitment to Derby, and a desire to create something exciting and relevant to its people. This can only be a good thing for the socio-economic development of Derby.